We developed and used real-time RT-PCR assays to investigate how the expression of typical osteoblast-related genes by human bone marrow stromal cells (BMSC) is regulated by (i) the culture time in medium inducing osteogenic differentiation and (ii) the previous expansion in medium enhancing cell osteogenic commitment. BMSC from six healthy donors were expanded in medium without (CTR) or with fibroblast growth factor-2 and dexamethasone (FGF/Dex; these factors are known to increase BMSC osteogenic commitment) and further cultivated for up to 20 days with ascorbic acid, β-glycerophosphate and dexamethasone (these factors are typically used to induce BMSC osteogenic differentiation). Despite a high variability in the gene expression levels among different individuals, we identified the following statistically significant patterns. The mRNA levels of bone morphogenetic protein-2 (BMP-2), bone sialo protein-II (BSP), osteopontin (OP) and to a lower extent cbfa-1 increased with culture time in osteogenic medium (OM), both in CTR- and FGF/Dex-expanded BMSC, unlike levels of alkaline phosphatase, collagen type I, osteocalcin, and osteonectin. After 20 days culture in OM, BMP-2, BSP, and OP were more expressed in FGF/Dex than in CTR-expanded BMSC (mRNA levels were, respectively, 9.5-, 14.9-, and 5.8-fold higher), unlike all the other investigated genes. Analysis of single-colony-derived strains of BMSC further revealed that after 20 days culture in OM, only a subset of FGF/Dex-expanded clones expressed higher mRNA levels of BMP-2, BSP, and OP than CTR-expanded clones. In conclusion, we provide evidence that mRNA levels of BMP-2, BSP, and OP, quantified using real-time RT-PCR, can be used as markers to monitor the extent of BMSC osteogenic differentiation in vitro; using those markers, we further demonstrated that only a few subpopulations of BMSC display enhanced osteogenic differentiation following FGF/Dex expansion. J. Cell. Biochem. 85: 737–746, 2002. © 2002 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
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