In bone forming cartilage in vivo, cells undergo terminal differentiation, whereas most of the cells in normal articular cartilage do not. Chondrocyte hypertrophy can be induced also in vitro by diffusible signals. We have identified growth factors or hormones acting individually on 17-d chick embryo sternal chondrocytes cultured in agarose gels under strictly serum-free conditions. Insulin-like growth factor I or insulin triggered the first steps of chondrocyte maturation, i.e., cell proliferation and increased matrix deposition while the chondrocytic phenotype was maintained. However, cells did not progress to the hypertrophic stage. Proliferation and stimulated collagen production was preceded by a lag period, indicating that synthesis of other components was required before cells became responsive to insulin-like growth factor I or insulin. Very small amounts of FBS exerted effects similar to those of insulin-like growth factor I or insulin. However, FBS could act directly and elicited hypertrophy when constituting greater than 1% of the culture media. Basic FGF has been claimed to be the most potent chondrocyte mitogen, but had negligible effects under serum-free conditions. The same is true for PDGF, a major serum-mitogen. Under the direction of thyroxine, cells did not proliferate but became typical hypertrophic chondrocytes, extensively synthesizing collagen X and alkaline phosphatase.

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