High density micromass cultures of embryonic limb bud mesenchymal cells: An in vitro model of endochondral skeletal development

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Summary

To study the mechanisms regulating endochondral skeletal development, we examined the characteristics of long-term, high density micromass cultures of embryonic chicken limb bud mesenchymal cells. By culture Day 3, these cells underwent distinct chondrogenesis, evidenced by cellular condensation to form large nodules exhibiting cartilage-like morphology and extracellular matrix. By Day 14, extensive cellular hypertrophy was seen in the core of the nodules, accompanied by increased alkaline phosphatase activity, and the limitation of cellular proliferation to the periphery of the nodules and to internodular areas. By Day 14, matrix calcification was detected by alizarin red staining, and calcium incorporation increased as a function of culture time up to 2 to 3 wk and then decreased. X-ray probe elemental analysis detected the presence of hydroxyapatite. Analogous to growth cartilage developing in vivo, these cultures also exhibited time-dependent apoptosis, on the basis of DNA fragmentation detected in situ by terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate (dUTP) nick end labeling (TUNEL), ultrastructural nuclear morphology, and the appearance of internucleosomal DNA degradation. These findings showed that cellular differentiation, maturation, hypertrophy, calcification, and apoptosis occurred sequentially in the embryonic limb mesenchyme micromass cultures and indicate their utility as a convenient in vitro model to investigate the regulatory mechanisms of endochondral ossification.