Growth-related structural, biochemical, and mechanical properties of the functional bone–cartilage unit



Anja Niehoff, Institute of Biomechanics and Orthopaedics, German Sport University Cologne, Am Sportpark Müngersdorf 6, 50933 Cologne, Germany. T: + 49 (0)221 49825620; F: + 49 (0)221 4971598; E:


Articular cartilage and subchondral bone act together, forming a unit as a weight-bearing loading-transmitting surface. A close interaction between both structures has been implicated during joint cartilage degeneration, but their coupling during normal growth and development is insufficiently understood. The purpose of the present study was to examine growth-related changes of cartilage mechanical properties and to relate these changes to alterations in cartilage biochemical composition and subchondral bone structure. Tibiae and femora of both hindlimbs from 7- and 13-week-old (each n = 12) female Sprague-Dawley rats were harvested. Samples were processed for structural, biochemical and mechanical analyses. Immunohistochemical staining and protein expression analyses of collagen II, collagen IX, COMP and matrilin-3, histomorphometry of cartilage thickness and COMP staining height were performed. Furthermore, mechanical testing of articular cartilage and micro-CT analysis of subchondral bone was conducted. Growth decreased cartilage thickness, paralleled by a functional condensation of the underlying subchondral bone due to enchondral ossification. Cartilage mechanical properties seem to be rather influenced by growth-related changes in the assembly of major ECM proteins such as collagen II, collagen IX and matrilin-3 than by growth-related alterations in its underlying subchondral bone structure. Importantly, the present study provides a first insight into the growth-related structural, biochemical and mechanical interaction of articular cartilage and subchondral bone. Finally, these data contribute to the general knowledge about the cooperation between the articular cartilage and subchondral bone.