Crystalline biominerals do not resemble faceted crystals. Current explanations for this property involve formation via amorphous phases. Using X-ray absorption near-edge structure (XANES) spectroscopy and photoelectron emission microscopy (PEEM), here we examine forming spicules in embryos of Strongylocentrotus purpuratus sea urchins, and observe a sequence of three mineral phases: hydrated amorphous calcium carbonate (ACC · H(2)O) ? dehydrated amorphous calcium carbonate (ACC) ? calcite. Unexpectedly, we find ACC · H(2)O-rich nanoparticles that persist after the surrounding mineral has dehydrated and crystallized. Protein matrix components occluded within the mineral must inhibit ACC · H(2)O dehydration. We devised an in vitro, also using XANES-PEEM, assay to identify spicule proteins that may play a role in stabilizing various mineral phases, and found that the most abundant occluded matrix protein in the sea urchin spicules, SM50, stabilizes ACC · H(2)O in vitro.