• cartilage canals;
  • endochondral bone formation;
  • macrophages;
  • membrane type-1 matrix metalloproteinases (MT1-MMP);
  • tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase (TRAP)


Endochondral bone formation, the process by which most parts of our skeleton evolve, leads to the establishment of the diaphyseal primary (POC) and epiphyseal secondary ossification centre (SOC) in long bones. An essential event for the development of the SOC is the early generation of vascularized cartilage canals that requires the proteolytic cleavage of the cartilaginous matrix. This in turn will allow the canals to grow into the epiphysis. In the present study we therefore initially investigated which enzymes and types of cells are involved in this process. We have chosen the mouse as an animal model and focused our studies on the distal part of the femur during early stages after birth. The formation of the cartilage canals was promoted by tartrate-resistant acid phosphatase (TRAP) and membrane type-1 matrix metalloproteinases (MT1-MMP). In addition, macrophages and cells containing numerous lysosomes contributed to the establishment of the canals and enabled their further advancement into the epiphysis. As development continued, the SOC was formed, and in mice aged 10 days a distinct layer of type I collagen (= osteoid) was laid down onto the cartilage scaffold. The events leading to the establishment of the SOC were compared with those of the POC. Basically these processes were quite similar, and in both ossification centers, TRAP-positive chondroclasts resorbed the cartilage matrix. However, occasionally co-expression of TRAP and MT1-MMP was noted in a small subpopulation of this cell type. Furthermore, numerous osteoblasts expressed MT1-MMP from the start of endochondral ossification, whereas others did not. In osteocytogenesis, MT1-MMP has been shown to be critical for the establishment of the cytoplasmic processes mediating the communication between osteocytes and bone-lining cells. Considering the well-known fact that not all osteoblasts transform into osteocytes, and in accordance with the present data, we suggest that MT1-MMP is needed at the very beginning of osteocytogenesis and may additionally determine whether an osteoblast further differentiates into an osteocyte.