Objective: The cell morphology, gene expression, and matrix synthesis of articular chondrocytes are known to vary with depth from the tissue surface. The objective of this study was to investigate if chondrocytes from different zones respond to in vitro oscillatory tensile loading in distinct ways and whether tensile strain, which is most prevalent near the articular surface, would preferentially stimulate superficial zone chondrocytes.
Design: Chondrocytes were separately isolated from the superficial, middle, and deep zones of articular cartilage and seeded into three-dimensional fibrin hydrogel constructs. An intermittent protocol of oscillatory tensile loading was applied for 3 days, and the effects on extracellular matrix (ECM) synthesis were assessed by measuring the incorporation of radiolabed precursors, size exclusion gel chromatography, and western blotting.
Results: Tensile loading was found to be a potent stimulus for proteoglycan synthesis only in superficial zone chondrocytes. Although overall biosynthesis rates by deep zone chondrocytes were unaffected by tensile loading, the molecular characteristics of proteins and proteoglycans released to the culture medium were significantly altered so as to resemble those of superficial zone chondrocytes.
Conclusions: Oscillatory tensile loading differentially affected subpopulations of articular chondrocytes in three-dimensional fibrin hydrogel constructs. Cells isolated from deeper regions of the tissue developed some characteristics of superficial zone chondrocytes after exposure to tensile loading, which may indicate an adaptive response to the new mechanical environment. Understanding how exogenous mechanical stimuli can differentially influence chondrocytes from distinct tissue zones will yield important insights into mechanobiological processes involved in cartilage tissue development, maintenance, disease, and repair.