Notochordal cells in the adult intervertebral disc: new perspective on an old question

Crit Rev Eukaryot Gene Expr. 2011;21(1):29-41. doi: 10.1615/critreveukargeneexpr.v21.i1.30.


The intervertebral disc is a tissue positioned between each of the vertebrae that accommodates applied biomechanical forces to the spine. The central compartment of the disc contains the nucleus pulposus (NP) which is enclosed by the annulus fibrosus and the endplate cartilage.The NP is derived from the notochord, a rod-like structure of mesodermal origin. Development of the notochord is tightly regulated by interactive transcription factors and target genes. Since a number of these molecules are unique they have be used for cell lineage and fate mapping studies of tissues of the intervertebral disc. These studies have shown that in a number of species including human, NP tissue retains notochordal cells throughout life. In the adult NP, there are present both large and small notochordal cells, as well as a progenitor cell population which can differentiate along the mesengenic pathway. Since tissue renewal in the intervertebral disc is dependent on the ability of these cells to commit to the NP lineage and undergo terminal differentiation, studies have been performed to assess which signaling pathways may regulate these activities. The notch signaling pathway is active in the intervertebral disc and is responsive to hypoxia, probably through HIF-1a. From a disease viewpoint, it is hypothesized that an oxemic shift, possibly mediated by alterations in the vascular supply to the tissues of the disc would be expected to lead to a failure in notochordal progenitor cell activation and a decrease in the number of differentiated cells. In turn, this would lead to decrements in function and enhancement of the effect of agents that are known to promote disc degeneration.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Animals
  • Body Patterning
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Hedgehog Proteins / genetics
  • Hedgehog Proteins / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit / genetics
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit / metabolism*
  • Intervertebral Disc / growth & development*
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / physiopathology*
  • Intervertebral Disc Degeneration / therapy
  • Mesoderm / cytology
  • Mesoderm / growth & development
  • Notochord / cytology*
  • Receptors, Notch / genetics*
  • Receptors, Notch / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Spine / growth & development
  • Stem Cells / cytology*


  • HIF1A protein, human
  • Hedgehog Proteins
  • Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit
  • Receptors, Notch