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Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2007 May;15(5):575-86. Epub 2006 Dec 13.

Physiological death of hypertrophic chondrocytes.

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  • 1School of Veterinary Science, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria 3010, Australia.



Post-proliferative chondrocytes in growth cartilage are present in two forms, light and dark cells. These cells undergo hypertrophy and die by a mechanism that is morphologically distinct from apoptosis, but has not been characterized. The aims of the current study were to document the ultrastructural appearance of dying hypertrophic chondrocytes, and to establish a culture system in which the mechanism of their death can be examined.


Growth cartilage from fetal and growing postnatal horses was examined by electron microscopy. Chondrocytes were isolated from epiphyseal cartilage from fetal horses and grown in pellet culture, then examined by light and electron microscopy, and quantitative polymerase chain reaction.


In tissue specimens, it was observed that dying dark chondrocytes underwent progressive extrusion of cytoplasm into the extracellular space, whereas light chondrocytes appeared to disintegrate within the cellular membrane. Pellets cultured in 0.1% fetal calf serum (FCS) contained dying light and dark chondrocytes similar to those seen in vivo. Transforming growth factor-beta1 or 10% FCS increased the proportion of dark cells and induced cell death. Triiodothyronine increased the differentiation of dark and light cells and induced their death. Dark cells were associated with higher levels of matrix metalloproteinase-13 expression than light cells, and light cells were associated with higher levels of type II collagen expression.


Light and dark hypertrophic chondrocytes each undergo a distinctive series of non-apoptotic morphological changes as they die. Pellet culture can be used as a model of the two forms of physiological death of hypertrophic chondrocytes.

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