Objective: During postnatal development, mammalian articular cartilage acts as a surface growth plate for the underlying epiphyseal bone. Concomitantly, it undergoes a fundamental process of structural reorganization from an immature isotropic to a mature (adult) anisotropic architecture. However, the mechanism underlying this structural transformation is unknown. It could involve either an internal remodelling process, or complete resorption followed by tissue neoformation. The aim of this study was to establish which of these two alternative tissue reorganization mechanisms is physiologically operative. We also wished to pinpoint the articular cartilage source of the stem cells for clonal expansion and the zonal location of the chondrocyte pool with high proliferative activity.
Methods: The New Zealand white rabbit served as our animal model. The analysis was confined to the high-weight-bearing (central) areas of the medial and lateral femoral condyles. After birth, the articular cartilage layer was evaluated morphologically at monthly intervals from the first to the eighth postnatal month, when this species attains skeletal maturity. The overall height of the articular cartilage layer at each juncture was measured. The growth performance of the articular cartilage layer was assessed by calcein labelling, which permitted an estimation of the daily growth rate of the epiphyseal bone and its monthly length-gain. The slowly proliferating stem-cell pool was identified immunohistochemically (after labelling with bromodeoxyuridine), and the rapidly proliferating chondrocyte population by autoradiography (after labelling with (3)H-thymidine).
Results: The growth activity of the articular cartilage layer was highest 1 month after birth. It declined precipitously between the first and third months, and ceased between the third and fourth months, when the animal enters puberty. The structural maturation of the articular cartilage layer followed a corresponding temporal trend. During the first 3 months, when the articular cartilage layer is undergoing structural reorganization, the net length-gain in the epiphyseal bone exceeded the height of the articular cartilage layer. This finding indicates that the postnatal reorganization of articular cartilage from an immature isotropic to a mature anisotropic structure is not achieved by a process of internal remodelling, but by the resorption and neoformation of all zones except the most superficial (stem-cell) one. The superficial zone was found to consist of slowly dividing stem cells with bidirectional mitotic activity. In the horizontal direction, this zone furnishes new stem cells that replenish the pool and effect a lateral expansion of the articular cartilage layer. In the vertical direction, the superficial zone supplies the rapidly dividing, transit-amplifying daughter-cell pool that feeds the transitional and upper radial zones during the postnatal growth phase of the articular cartilage layer.
Conclusions: During postnatal development, mammalian articular cartilage fulfils a dual function, viz., it acts not only as an articulating layer but also as a surface growth plate. In the lapine model, this growth activity ceases at puberty (3-4 months of age), whereas that of the true (metaphyseal) growth plate continues until the time of skeletal maturity (8 months). Hence, the two structures are regulated independently. The structural maturation of the articular cartilage layer coincides temporally with the cessation of its growth activity--for the radial expansion and remodelling of the epiphyseal bone--and with sexual maturation. That articular cartilage is physiologically reorganized by a process of tissue resorption and neoformation, rather than by one of internal remodelling, has important implications for the functional engineering and repair of articular cartilage tissue.