The structural organization of articular cartilage from the medial femoral condyle of young adult rabbits has been examined after processing according to an improved fixation procedure. By using recently developed stereological methods, a quantitative analysis of chondrocyte number, surface area, volume, and matrix volume per cell was carried out in the light microscope; at the electron microscopic level, quantities of cytoplasmic components within chondrocytes (including organelles) were estimated. These measurements were made for each of the four zones from the (articular cartilage) surface down to the tidemark, and the results (for each zone) were compared between weight- and less-weight-bearing regions.
In general, articular cartilage revealed considerable heterogeneity in structure throughout its depth. The number of cells per unit volume is maximal beneath the surface and decreases towards the tidemark. The size of chondrocytes, and the mean matrix volume surrounding each, increases from the surface toward the deeper zones. Comparison between weight- and less-weight-bearing regions reveals striking differences. The numerical volume density of cells in the superficial zone of regions bearing high physiological load is less than half of that in less-weight-bearing regions, chondrocyte death being principally responsible for this reduction. A comparison between the midzones of weight- and less-weight-bearing areas reveals that the former is characterized by a decrease in cell density and an approximately threefold increase in cell size in relation to the latter. The increase in cell volume is attributable principally to an accumulation of intermediate filaments and glycogen particles, and represents an adaptation to increased functional requirements. Near the tidemark, numerical volume densities of chondrocytes in both weight- and less-weight-bearing locations are similar, but the larger cell size in the former still persists.