Osteogenetic protein-1 (OP-1), a member of the TGF-beta superfamily, induces endochondrial bone formation at subcutaneous sites in vivo and stimulates osteoblastic phenotypic expression in vitro. Primary cultures of newborn rat calvarial cells contain a spectrum of osteogenic phenotypes ranging from undifferentiated mesenchymal osteoprogenitor cells to parathyroid hormone (PTH)-responsive osteoblasts. We examined whether treatment of this cell population with recombinant human osteogenic protein-1 could induce chondrogenesis in vitro. Markers of chondroblastic versus osteoblastic differentiation included alcian blue staining at pH 1, alkaline phosphatase-specific activity, osteocalcin radioimmunoassay, and expression of collagen mRNAs. 6 d of treatment (culture days 1-7) with 4-100 ng OP-1/ml caused dose-dependent increases in alcian blue staining intensity and alkaline phosphatase activity (4.7- and 3.4-fold, respectively, at 40 ng/ml), while osteocalcin production decreased twofold. Clusters of round, refractile, alcian blue-stained cells appeared by day 3, increased in number until day 7, and then became hypertrophic and gradually became less distinct. Histochemically, the day 7 clusters were associated with high alkaline phosphatase activity and became mineralized. mRNA transcripts for collagen types II and IX were increased by OP-1, peaking at day 4, while type X collagen mRNA was detectable only on day 7 in OP-1-treated cultures. Delay of OP-1 exposure until confluence (day 7) amplifies expression of the normal osteoblastic phenotype and accelerates its developmental maturation. In contrast, early OP-1 treatment commencing on day 1 strongly amplifies chondroblastic differentiation. In the same protocol, TGF-beta 1 alone at 0.01-40 ng/ml fails to induce any hypertrophic chondrocytes, and in combination with OP-1, TGF-beta 1 blocks OP-1-dependent chondroinduction. OP-1 is believed to act on a subpopulation of primitive osteoprogenitor cells to induce endochondrial ossification, but does not appear to reverse committed osteoblasts to the chondrocyte phenotype.

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