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J Bone Joint Surg Br. 2000 May;82(4):601-13.

Physiological cell death of chondrocytes in vivo is not confined to apoptosis. New observations on the mammalian growth plate.

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  • 1University Orthopaedics, Southampton General Hospital, England, UK.


Chondrocytes at the lower zone of the growth plate must be eliminated to facilitate longitudinal growth; this is generally assumed to involve apoptosis. We attempted to provide definitive electron-microscopic evidence of apoptosis in chondrocytes of physes and chondroepiphyses in the rabbit. We were, however, unable to find a single chondrocyte with the ultrastructure of 'classical' apoptosis in vivo, although such a cell was found in vitro. Instead, condensed chondrocytes had a convoluted nucleus with patchy chromatin condensations while the cytoplasm was dark with excessive amounts of endoplasmic reticulum. These cells were termed 'dark chondrocytes'. A detailed study of their ultrastructure combined with localisation methods in situ suggested a different mechanism of programmed cell death. In addition, another type of death was identified among the immature chondrocytes of the chondroepiphysis. These cells had the same nucleus as dark chondrocytes, but the lumen of the endoplasmic reticulum had expanded to fill the entire non-nuclear space, and all cytoplasm and organelles had been reduced to dark, worm-like inclusions. Since these cells appeared to be 'in limbo', they were termed 'paralysed' cells. It is proposed that 'dark chondrocytes' and 'paralysed cells' are examples of physiological cell death which does not involve apoptosis. It is possible that the confinement of chondrocytes within their lacunae, which would prevent phagocytosis of apoptotic bodies, necessitates different mechanisms of elimination.

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