The chondrocyte, architect of cartilage. Biomechanics, structure, function and molecular biology of cartilage matrix macromolecules



Chondrocytes are specialised cells which produce and maintain the extracellular matrix of cartilage, a tissue that is resilient and pliant. In vivo, it has to withstand very high compressive loads, and that is explicable in terms of the physico-chemical properties of cartilage-specific macromolecules and with the movement of water and ions within the matrix. The functions of the cartilage-specific collagens, aggrecan (a hydrophilic proteoglycan) and hyaluronan are discussed within this context. The structures of cartilage collagens and proteoglycans and their genes are known and a number of informative mutations have been identified. In particular, collagen fibrillogenesis is a complex process which can be altered by mutations whose effects fit what is known about collagen molecular structural functions. In other instances, mutations have indicated new functions for particular molecular domains. As cartilage provides the template for the developing skeleton, mutations in genes for cartilage-specific proteins often produce developmental abnormalities. The search for mutations amongst such genes in heritable disorders is being actively pursued by many groups, although mutation and phenotype are not always well correlated, probably because of compensatory mechanisms. The special nature of the chondrocyte is stressed in connection with its cell involvement in osteoarthritis, the most widespread disease of diarthrodial joints.