A newly defined chick calvariae osteoblast culture system that undergoes a temporal sequence of differentiation of the osteoblast phenotype with subsequent mineralization (Gerstenfeld, L. C., S. Chipman, J. Glowacki, and J. B. Lian. 1987. Dev. Biol. 122:49-60) has been examined for the regulation of collagen synthesis, ultrastructural organization of collagen fibrils, and extracellular matrix mineralization. Collagen gene expression, protein synthesis, processing, and accumulation were studied in this system over a 30-d period. Steady state mRNA levels for pro alpha 1(I) and pro alpha 2 collagen and total collagen synthesis increased 1.2- and 1.8-fold, respectively, between days 3 and 12. Thereafter, total collagen synthesis decreased 10-fold while mRNA levels decreased 2.5-fold. In contrast to the decreasing protein synthesis after day 12, total accumulated collagen in the cell layers increased sixfold from day 12 to 30. Examination of the kinetics of procollagen processing demonstrated that there was a sixfold increase in the rate of procollagen conversion to alpha chains from days 3 to 30 and the newly synthesized collagen was more efficiently incorporated into the extracellular matrix at later culture times. The macrostructural assembly of collagen and its relationship to culture mineralization were also examined. High voltage electron microscopy demonstrated that culture cell layers were three to four cells thick. Each cell layer was associated with a layer of well developed collagen fibrils orthogonally arranged with respect to adjacent layers. Fibrils had distinct 64-70-nm periodicity typical of type I collagen. Electron opaque areas found principally associated with the deepest layers of the fibrils consisted of calcium and phosphorus determined by electron probe microanalysis and were identified by electron diffraction as a very poorly crystalline hydroxyapatite mineral phase. These data demonstrate for the first time that cultured osteoblasts are capable of assembling their collagen fibrils into a bone-specific macrostructure which mineralizes in a manner similar to that characterized in vivo. Further, this matrix maturation may influence the processing kinetics of the collagen molecule.

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