• femtosecond;
  • intervertebral disc;
  • notochordal cells;
  • two-photon;
  • 3D scaffolds


The central region of the intervertebral disc (IVD) in infant humans is made and maintained by notochordal cells (NCs). These cells disappear during maturation to be replaced by mature chondrocyte-like cells. NCs are completely different morphologically from the mature chondrocyte-like IVD cells and have complex and essential functions but little is known about them. Recently, two-photon laser scanning microscopy (TPLSM) using near-infrared (NIR) femtosecond pulsed lasers has emerged as a promising noninvasive optical technique for observing unfixed living 3D biological specimens in situ and in vitro. Several lines of evidence suggest that compared with conventional laser scanning confocal microscopy (LSCM), femtosecond NIR laser-based TPLSM has any number of advantages including 3D resolution without a spatial filter (confocal pinhole), minimal photobleaching, and photodamage above and below the focal plane, and importantly, greater depth penetration. We have thus taken advantage of these unique features of femtosecond laser-based TPLSM for vital 3D imaging in conjunction with advanced spatial-volume rendering modalities to compare morphologies of NCs/clusters from pig caudal discs with chondrocyte-like IVD cells from bovine caudal discs, both in ex vivo tissue and when isolated and grown in vitro within 3D alginate scaffolds. Our results provide evidence that (a) ex vivo notochordal tissue consists of areas with NC clusters, and those dominated by tubular structures of low cell density (b) within 3D in vitro scaffolds the morphology of NC is heterogeneous and the cells contain distinct cytoplasmic vacuole-like structures occasionally including acidic subinclusions (c) a quantitative determination based on 3D spatial and volumetric-rendering reveals an average NC diameter of 22.05 μm (range 11.96–46.63 μm) and NC volume of 9701 μm3 (2041–36427 μm3) whereas chondrocyte-like cells have a mean volume of 3279 μm3 and diameter of 12.20 μm. Taken together, this study demonstrates that femtosecond TPLSM has unique advantages over other conventional histological and in particular LSCM for high resolution noninvasive vital characterization of notochordal and chondrocyte-like cells of IVD over extended depths beyond 300–500 μm. Microsc. Res. Tech., 2008. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.