We have investigated the temporal pattern of expression of c-fos in cartilage cells in mouse mandibular condyles. During in vitro cultivation, the progenitor cells in this organ differentiate to osteoblasts, and hypertrophic chondrocytes start to show features indicative of osteogenic differentiation. Prior to these processes we observed two distinct patterns of c-fos expression. High, transient c-fos expression was found in the entire tissue within 30 min of culture. This type of c-fos expression appeared to result from mechanical forces applied during dissection. The second type of c-fos expression appeared in individual cells in the zone of hypertrophic chondrocytes. A varying number of formerly quiescent chondrocytes expressed high levels of c-fos mRNA after between 30 min and 10 d in culture, with a peak in the number of cells between days 1 and 3. c-fos expression in these cartilage cells was followed by DNA replication and expression of genes typifying osteoblastic differentiation. After 7 d in culture, groups of cells with the typical ultrastructural features of osteoblasts, and surrounded by an osteoid-like matrix, were observed in single chondrocyte-type lacunae, suggesting division of chondrocytes and differentiation to osteoblasts. The data suggest that c-fos may play a crucial role in the perturbation of determined pathways of skeletoblast differentiation and in the regulation of endochondral bone formation.

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