We recently proposed that most mammalian cells other than blastomeres may be programmed to kill themselves unless continuously signaled by other cells not to. Many observations indicate that some mammalian cells are programmed in this way, but is it the case for most mammalian cells? As it is impractical to test all of the hundreds of types of mammalian cells, we have focused on two tissues--lens and cartilage--which each contain only a single cell type: if there are cells that do not require signals from other cells to avoid programmed cell death (PCD), lens epithelial cells and cartilage cells (chondrocytes) might be expected to be among them. We have previously shown that rat lens epithelial cells can survive in serum-free culture without signals from other cell types but seem to require signals from other lens epithelial cells to survive: without such signals they undergo PCD. We show here that the same is true for rat (and chick) chondrocytes. They can survive for weeks in culture at high cell density in the absence of other cell types, serum, or exogenous proteins or signaling molecules, but they die with the morphological features of apoptosis in these conditions at low cell density. Medium from high density cultures, FCS, or a combination of known growth factors, all support prolonged chondrocyte survival in low density cultures, as long as antioxidants are also present. Moreover, medium from high density chondrocyte cultures promotes the survival of lens epithelial cells in low density cultures and vice versa. Chondrocytes isolated from adult rats behave similarly to those isolated from developing rats. These findings support the hypothesis that most mammalian cells require signals from other cells to avoid PCD, although the signals can sometimes be provided by cells of the same type, at least in tissues that contain only one cell type.

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