Paraffin sections of human skeletal tissues were studied in order to identify cells responsible for production of types I, II, and III collagens by in situ hybridization. Northern hybridization and sequence information were used to select restriction fragments of cDNA clones for the corresponding mRNAs to obtain probes with a minimum of cross-hybridization. The specificity of the probes was proven in hybridizations to sections of developing fingers: osteoblasts and chondrocytes, known to produce only one type of fibrillar collagen each (I and II, respectively) were only recognized by the corresponding cDNA probes. Smooth connective tissues exhibited variable hybridization intensities with types I and III collagen cDNA probes. The technique was used to localize the activity of type II collagen production in the different zones of cartilage during the growth of long bones. Visual inspection and grain counting revealed the highest levels of pro alpha 1(II) collagen mRNAs in chondrocytes of the lower proliferative and upper hypertrophic zones of the growth plate cartilage. This finding was confirmed by Northern blotting of RNAs isolated from epiphyseal (resting) cartilage and from growth zone cartilage. Analysis of the osseochondral junction revealed virtually no overlap between hybridization patterns obtained with probes specific for type I and type II collagen mRNAs. Only a fraction of the chondrocytes in the degenerative zone were recognized by the pro alpha 1(II) collagen cDNA probe, and none by the type I collagen cDNA probe. In the mineralizing zone virtually all cells were recognized by the type I collagen cDNA probe, but only very few scattered cells appeared to contain type II collagen mRNA. These data indicate that in situ hybridization is a valuable tool for identification of connective tissue cells which are actively producing different types of collagens at the various stages of development, differentiation, and growth.

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