Apoptotic Osteocytes Induce RANKL Production in Bystanders via Purinergic Signaling and Activation of Pannexin Channels

J Bone Miner Res. 2020 May;35(5):966-977. doi: 10.1002/jbmr.3954. Epub 2020 Feb 11.


Localized apoptosis of osteocytes, the tissue-resident cells within bone, occurs with fatigue microdamage and activates bone resorption. Osteoclasts appear to target and remove dying osteocytes, resorbing damaged bone matrix as well. Osteocyte apoptosis similarly activates bone resorption with estrogen loss and in disuse. Apoptotic osteocytes trigger viable neighbor (ie, bystander) osteocytes to produce RANKL, the cytokine required for osteoclast activation. Signals from apoptotic osteocytes that trigger this bystander RANKL expression remain obscure. Studying signaling among osteocytes has been hampered by lack of in vitro systems that model the limited communication among osteocytes in vivo (ie, via gap junctions on cell processes and/or paracrine signals through thin pericellular fluid spaces around osteocytes). Here, we used a novel multiscale fluidic device (the Macro-micro-nano, or Mμn) that reproduces these key anatomical features. Osteocytes in discrete compartments of the device communicate only via these limited pathways, which allows assessment of their roles in triggering osteocytes RANKL expression. Apoptosis of MLOY-4 osteocytes in the Mμn device caused increased osteocyte RANKL expression in the neighboring compartment, consistent with in vivo findings. This RANKL upregulation in bystander osteocytes was prevented by blocking Pannexin 1 channels as well as its ATP receptor. ATP alone caused comparable RANKL upregulation in bystander osteocytes. Finally, blocking Connexin 43 gap junctions did not abolish osteocyte RANKL upregulation, but did alter the distribution of RANKL expressing bystander osteocytes. These findings point to extracellular ATP, released from apoptotic osteocytes via Panx1 channels, as a major signal for triggering bystander osteocyte RANKL expression and activating bone remodeling. © 2020 American Society for Bone and Mineral Research.


Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis*
  • Bone Remodeling
  • Bone Resorption*
  • Cell Line
  • Connexins
  • Mice
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Osteoclasts
  • Osteocytes*
  • RANK Ligand / metabolism*
  • Signal Transduction


  • Connexins
  • Nerve Tissue Proteins
  • Panx1 protein, mouse
  • RANK Ligand
  • Tnfsf11 protein, mouse