We examined the effect of an extracellular matrix (ECM), produced by either bovine corneal endothelial (BCE) cells or mouse PF HR-9 teratocarcinoma cells, on the ability of rabbit costal chondrocytes to re-express their phenotype once confluent. Rabbit chondrocytes seeded at low densities and grown on plastic tissue culture dishes produced a heterogeneous cell population composed of both overtly differentiated and poorly differentiated chondrocytes, as well as fibroblastic cells. On the other hand, cultures grown on BCE-ECM- or HR-9-ECM-coated dishes reorganized into a homogeneous cartilage-like tissue composed of round cells surrounded by a refractile matrix that stained intensely with alcian green. The cell ultrastructure and that of their pericellular matrix were similar to those seen in vivo. The differentiation of chondrocyte cultures grown on the ECMs vs. plastic was reflected by a two- to three-fold increase in the maximal rate of incorporation of [35S]sulfate and [3H]glucosamine into proteoglycans. Furthermore, the ratio of 35S-labeled proteoglycans incorporated in the cell layer vs. those released into the medium was 1.5-2.5-fold higher when cultures were grown on the ECMs than on plastic. This suggests that the ECMs stimulate the incorporation of newly synthesized proteoglycans into a cartilaginous matrix. Since chondrocyte cultures grown on BCE-ECM or HR-9-ECM give rise to a homogeneous cartilage-like tissue even when seeded at low cell densities, they provide a model for the study of cell-substrate interactions that are responsible for the maintenance of the differentiated phenotype of chondrocytes.

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