Background: Apoptosis in vivo has been identified in developing cartilage from embryonic chick sterna and avian and murine growth plates. To date, no evidence exists that chondrocytes in articular cartilage undergo apoptosis.
Methods: We examined the distribution of cells demonstrating fragmented DNA in the articular knee cartilage of C57BL/6 mice (aged 11, 18, 24, and 30 months) and Wistar rats (aged 6, 12, and 24 months) using a DNA end-labeling technique.
Results: Control experiments utilizing retinoic acid-induced apoptosis in a chondrocyte cell line, established that DNA end-labeling correlated with DNA ladder formation. In vivo, apoptotic cells were detected in articular cartilage tissue in both species examined. The percentage of apoptotic cells increased significantly (P < 0.05 with age) for all joint surfaces in both species. No significant difference was found between the medial and lateral or femoral and tibial joint surfaces of the knee. Apoptotic cells were observed in both the calcified and uncalcified regions of the articular cartilage of C57 mice. In the rat, only the calcified region of articular cartilage contained apoptotic cells.
Conclusions: These results suggest that apoptosis plays a role in some aspect of maintenance, remodeling, or turnover of mature articular cartilage. In addition, the increase in apoptosis associated with aging could contribute to the greater risk for cartilage degeneration.