• rabbit knee joint;
  • cell division;
  • cell death/apoptosis;
  • cavitation;
  • articular cartilage;
  • development


Articular chondrocytes are a unique set of cells from the time the cellular condensations that become the anlagen of the long bones develop in the embryo. In the presumptive joint the cells of the opposing bones are packed very closely together, but at cavitation, the central, flattened cells move apart to form the articular surfaces. As the articular cartilage develops the cells are pushed further apart by the cartilaginous matrix. To determine the contributions of cell proliferation and death to cavitation and the subsequent development and growth of articular cartilage, direct observations were made to identify mitotic cells and those with apoptotic bodies in haematoxylin-stained sections of developing joints, and growing and ageing articular cartilage of the rabbit knee. These observations were extended using antibodies to the proliferating cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) and TdT-mediated dUTP nick end labelling (TUNEL) on corresponding sections. Low levels of cell division do occur in the articular cartilage up to 6 weeks postnatally, but matrix formation makes the major contribution to the increase in size of the cartilage. Cell death is not observed during cavitation, nor during the development of the articular cartilage proper. Apoptosis is essential, however, for the removal of the epiphyseal cartilage during ossification of the epiphyses and in the growth plate.