Recent studies indicate that neural EGFL-like 1 (Nell-1), a secretive extracellular matrix molecule, is involved in chondrogenic differentiation. Herein, we demonstrated that Nell-1 serves as a key downstream target of runt-related transcription factor 2 (Runx2), a central regulator of chondrogenesis. Unlike in osteoblast lineage cells where Nell-1 and Runx2 demonstrate mutual regulation, further studies in chondrocytes revealed that Runx2 tightly regulates the expression of Nell-1; however, Nell-1 does not alter the expression of Runx2. More important, Nell-1 administration partially restored Runx2 deficiency-induced impairment of chondrocyte differentiation and maturation in vitro, ex vivo, and in vivo. Mechanistically, although the expression of Nell-1 is highly reliant on Runx2, the prochondrogenic function of Nell-1 persisted in Runx2-/- scenarios. The biopotency of Nell-1 is independent of the nuclear import and DNA binding functions of Runx2 during chondrogenesis. Nell-1 is a key functional mediator of chondrogenesis, thus opening up new possibilities for the application of Nell-1 in cartilage regeneration.
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