Chondrocytes from chicken embryo tibia can be maintained in culture as adherent cells in Coon's modified Ham's F-12 medium supplemented with 10% FCS. In this condition, they dedifferentiate, losing type II collagen expression in favor of type I collagen synthesis. Their differentiation to hypertrophy can be obtained by transferring them to suspension culture. Differentiation is evidenced by the shift from type I to type II and type IX collagen synthesis and the following predominant expression of type X collagen, all markers of specific stages of the differentiation process. To identify the factors required for differentiation, we developed a serum-free culture system where only the addition of triiodothyronine (T3; 10(-11) M), insulin (60 ng/ml), and dexamethasone (10(-9) M) to the F-12 medium was sufficient to obtain hypertrophic chondrocytes. In this hormonal context, chondrocytes display the same changes in the pattern of protein synthesis as described above. For proper and complete cell maturation, T3 and insulin concentrations cannot be modified. Insulin cannot be substituted by insulin-like growth factor-I, but dexamethasone concentration can be decreased to 10(-12) M without chondrogenesis being impaired. In the latter case, the expression of type X collagen and its mRNA are inversely proportional to dexamethasone concentration. When ascorbic acid is added to the hormone-supplemented medium, differentiating chondrocytes organize their matrix leading to a cartilage-like structure with hypertrophic chondrocytes embedded in lacunae. However, this structure does not present detectable calcification, at variance with control cultures maintained in FCS. Accordingly, in the presence of the hormone mixture, the differentiating chondrocytes have low levels of alkaline phosphatase activity. This report indicates that T3 and insulin are primary factors involved in the onset and progression of chondrogenesis, while dexamethasone supports cell viability and modulates some differentiated functions.

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