The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 39: 881 - 893 (1995)

Vol 39, Issue 6

Divide, accumulate, differentiate: cell condensation in skeletal development revisited

Published: 1 December 1995

B K Hall and T Miyake

Department of Biology, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.


Cell condensation is a pivotal stage in skeletal development. Although prechondrogenic condensations normally exist for some 12 h, duration can vary. Variation is seen both between condensations for different cartilages (Meckel's vs. elastic ear cartilage) and within a single condensation from which more than one skeletal element will form, as in the three components of the single first arch chondrogenic condensation. Understanding how duration of the condensation phase is established--how the condensation phase is entered and exited during cell differentiation--remains a major area for future study. During chondrogenesis, cell-specific products such as collagen types II and IX and cartilage proteoglycan appear concomitant with condensation. Therefore, during chondrogenesis, condensation precedes commitment of cells as prechondroblasts. During osteogenesis, however, differentiation of preosteoblasts precedes condensation. Therefore, during osteogenesis, condensation amplifies the number of committed osteogenic cells. Further comparative analysis of skeletogenesis should provide us with a more rigorous understanding of cell commitment, when differentiation is initiated, how commitment and differentiation are measured and the relationship of condensation to onset of differentiation. Current knowledge of molecules characteristic of condensations focused attention on extracellular matrix and cell surface components on the one hand, and on growth factors homeobox genes and transcription factors on the other. We have drawn together the molecular data for pre-chondrogenic condensations in diagrammatic form in Figure 2. Three major phases of chondrogenesis are identified: (a) epithelial-mesenchymal interactions that precede condensation, (b) condensation itself, and (c) cell differentiation. Although we label the third phase differentiation, it is important to recognize that phases a and b also constitute aspects of chondroblast cell differentiation (see Dunlop and Hall, 1995 for a discussion of this point. The pre-condensation phase is characterized by expression of Hox genes, growth factors (TGF-beta and BMP-2) and the cell surface proteoglycan receptor, syndecan-1. Expression of Msx-1 and Msx-2, growth factors and syndecan continues into the condensation phase. Other molecules, such as versican, syndecan-3 and tenascin, present in low concentrations before condensation, are up-regulated during condensation. Yet other molecules--Hox genes, transcription factors, growth factors (activin, BMP-4 and -5, GDF-5), cell adhesion molecules and proteoglycans--are only expressed during the condensation phase, while the transcription factor Pax-1, fibronectin, hyaluronan and hyaladherin are expressed both during and after condensation. During condensation mRNAs for collagen types II and IX and for the core protein of cartilage proteoglycan are up-regulated. Late in condensation and increasingly thereafter, the protein products of these genes accumulate as chondroblasts differentiate (see Fig. 2 for details). Not all the molecules present before, during of after condensation can be placed into causal sequences. Some however can. In Figure 3 we summarize the causal sequences discussed in this paper as they relate to initiation of condensation and to transit from condensation to overt differentiation during chondrogenesis. Condensations form following activation of at least three pathways: (1) Initiation of epithelial-mesenchymal interactions by tenascin, BMP-2, TGF beta-1 and Msx-1 and -2. (2) Up-regulation of N-CAM by activin. (3) Up-regulation of fibronectin by TGF-beta, further enhancing N-CAM accumulation (Fig. 3). It is by these three pathways that condensations are initiated and grow. Transition from condensation to overt cell differentiation is under both positive and negative control (Fig. 3). Syndecan blocks fibronectin and so blocks N-CAM accumulation, preventing accumulation of additional cell

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