Regional differences in cell shape and gap junction expression in rat Achilles tendon: relation to fibrocartilage differentiation


Correspondence to Dr J. R. Ralphs, Anatomy Unit, School of Molecular and Medical Biosciences, University of Wales Cardiff, PO Box 911, Cardiff CF1 3US, UK.


Tendon cells have complex shapes, with many cell processes and an intimate association with collagen fibre bundles in their extracellular matrix. Where cells and their processes contact one another, they form gap junctions. In the present study, we have examined the distribution of gap junction components in phenotypically different regions of rat Achilles tendon. This tendon contains a prominent enthesial fibrocartilage at its calcaneal attachment and a sesamoid fibrocartilage where it is pressed against the calcaneus just proximal to the attachment. Studies using DiI staining demonstrated typical stellate cell shape in transverse sections of pure tendon, with cells withdrawing their cell processes and rounding up in the fibrocartilaginous zones. Coincident with change in shape, cells stopped expressing the gap junction proteins connexins 32 and 43, with connexin 43 disappearing earlier in the transition than connexin 32. Thus, there are major differences in the ability of cells to communicate with one another in the phenotypically distinct regions of tendon. Individual fibrocartilage cells must sense alterations in the extracellular matrix by cell/matrix interactions, but can only coordinate their behaviour via indirect cytokine and growth factor signalling. The tendon cells have additional possibilities — in addition to the above, they have the potential to communicate direct cytoplasmic signals via gap junctions. The formation of fibrocartilage in tendons occurs because of the presence of compressive as well as tensile forces. It may be that different systems are used to sense and respond to such forces in fibrous and cartilaginous tissues.