Conditions were defined for promoting cell growth, hypertrophy, and extracellular matrix mineralization of a culture system derived from embryonic chick vertebral chondrocytes. Ascorbic acid supplementation by itself led to the hypertrophic phenotype as assessed by respective 10- and 15-fold increases in alkaline phosphatase enzyme activity and type X synthesis. Maximal extracellular matrix mineralization was obtained, however, when cultures were grown in a nutrient-enriched medium supplemented with both ascorbic acid and 20 mM beta-glycerophosphate. Temporal studies over a 3-wk period showed a 3-4-fold increase in DNA accompanied by a nearly constant DNA to protein ratio. In this period, total collagen increased from 3 to 20% of the cell layer protein; total calcium and phosphorus contents increased 15-20-fold. Proteoglycan synthesis was maximal until day 12 but thereafter showed a fourfold decrease. In contrast, total collagen synthesis showed a greater than 10-fold increase until day 18, a result suggesting that collagen synthesis was replacing proteoglycan synthesis during cellular hypertrophy. Separate analysis of individual collagen types demonstrated a low level of type I collagen synthesis throughout the 21-d time course. Collagen types II and X synthesis increased during the first 2 wk of culture; thereafter, collagen type II synthesis decreased while collagen type X synthesis continued to rise. Type IX synthesis remained at undetectable levels throughout the time course. The levels of collagen types I, II, IX, and X mRNA and the large proteoglycan core protein mRNA paralleled their levels of synthesis, data indicating pretranslational control of synthesis. Ultrastructural examination revealed cellular and extracellular morphology similar to that for a developing hypertrophic phenotype in vivo. Chondrocytes in lacunae were surrounded by a well-formed extracellular matrix of randomly distributed collagen type II fibrils (approximately 20-nm diam) and extensive proteoglycan. Numerous vesicular structures could be detected. Cultures mineralized reproducibly and crystals were located in extracellular matrices, principally associated with collagen fibrils. There was no clear evidence of mineral association with extracellular vesicles. The mineral was composed of calcium and phosphorus on electron probe microanalysis and was identified as a very poorly crystalline hydroxyapatite on electron diffraction. In summary, these data suggest that this culture system consists of chondrocytes which undergo differentiation in vitro as assessed by their elevated levels of alkaline phosphatase and type X collagen and their ultrastructural appearance.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

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