This report deals with the quantitation of both mRNA and transcription activity of type I collagen gene and of three cartilage-specific collagens (types II, IX, and X) during in vitro differentiation of chick chondrocytes. Differentiation was obtained by transferal to suspension culture of dedifferentiated cells passaged for 3 wk as adherent cells. The type I collagen mRNA, highly represented in the dedifferentiated cells, rapidly decreased during chondrocyte differentiation. On the contrary, types II and IX collagen mRNAs sharply increased within the first week of suspension culture, peaked in the second week, and thereafter began to decrease. This decrease was particularly significant for type IX collagen mRNA. The level of type X collagen mRNA progressively increased during the course of the culture, reached its maximal value after 3-4 wk, and decreased only at a later stage of cell differentiation. As determined by in vitro run-off transcription assays, all these changes in collagen mRNA levels could be attributed to parallel modifications in the relative rate of transcription of the corresponding collagen genes. We suggest that chicken chondrocyte differentiation proceeds through at least two different steps: (a) first, transition from a stage characterized by a high level of type I collagen mRNA to a stage characterized by predominance of types II and IX collagen mRNAs; (b) later, transition to a stage characterized by the highest level of type X collagen mRNA.

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