RCJ 3.1, a clonally derived cell population isolated from 21-d fetal rat calvaria, expresses the osteoblast-associated characteristics of polygonal morphology, a cAMP response to parathyroid hormone, synthesis of predominantly type I collagen, and the presence of 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3-regulated alkaline phosphatase activity. When cultured in the presence of ascorbic acid, sodium beta-glycerophosphate, and the synthetic glucocorticoid dexamethasone, this clone differentiated in a time-dependent manner into four morphologically distinct phenotypes of known mesenchymal origin. Multinucleated muscle cells were observed as early as 9-10 d in culture, lipid-containing adipocytes formed after 12 d, chondrocyte nodules were observed after 16 d, and mineralized bone nodules formed after 21 d in culture. The differentiated cell types were characterized morphologically, histochemically, and immunohistochemically. The formation of adipocytes and chondrocytes was dependent upon the addition of dexamethasone; the muscle and bone phenotypes were also expressed at low frequency in the absence of dexamethasone. The sex steroid hormones progesterone and 17 beta-estradiol had no effect on differentiation in this system, suggesting that the effects of dexamethasone represent effects specific for glucocorticosteroids. Increasing concentrations of dexamethasone (10(-9)-10(-6) M) increased the numbers of myotubes, adipocytes, and chondrocytes; however, when present continuously for 35 d, the lower concentrations appeared to better maintain the muscle and adipocyte phenotypes. Bone nodules were not quantitated because the frequency of bone nodule formation was too low. Single cells obtained by plating RCJ 3.1 cells at limiting dilutions in the presence of dexamethasone, were shown to give rise to subclones that could differentiate into either single or multiple phenotypes. Thus, the data suggest that this clonal cell line contains subpopulations of mesenchymal progenitor cells which can, under the influence of glucocorticoid hormones, differentiate in vitro into four distinct cell types. It is, therefore, a unique cell line which will be of great use in the study of the regulation of mesenchymal stem cell differentiation.

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