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Abstract

To understand the growth, maturation, and regulation of growth plate chondrocytes, it is necessary to isolate the different chondrocytes into distinct subpopulations of maturational development. Five subpopulations (A—E) of bovine fetal growth plate chondrocytes were separated by discontinuous gradient centrifugation. Four subpopulations (B, C, D, and E, from low to high density) with good viability were cultured at high density in microwells for up to 30 days. They all established an extensive extracellular matrix composed of proteoglycan and collagen. The largest and least dense cells in subpopulation B were the first to synthesize (at days 5–6) type X collagen and to calcify this matrix. Matrix calcification (formation of hydroxyapatite in the presence of sodium β-glycerophosphate) always followed the initiation of type X synthesis. All the other subpopulations synthesized type X collagen and calcified their extracellular matrix. Although these events occurred in the same order, they were delayed according to the order of increasing cell size. These observations indicate that these subpopulations represent different stages in cellular maturation that lead to expression of the hypertrophic phenotype. Once mineral formation was well established, there was an increase in the matrix content of the C-propeptide of type II collagen (which is known to bind to hydroxyapatite and accumulate in calcifying extracellular matrix). This was accompanied by a reduction in the total collagen content, which accompanied an abrupt reduction in type X collagen synthesis, whereas type II collagen synthesis was largely maintained. These reductions in collagen content and type II collagen synthesis were not observed in the absence of calcification (β-glycerophosphate omitted from culture). This new culture system recreates many of the sequential cellular and extracellular changes exhibited in situ during the development of the physis and provides new information about cellular and extracellular matrix changes that occur before and at the time of calcification.