This study compares the collagen types present in rabbit ear cartilage with those synthesized by dissociated chondrocytes in cell culture. The cartilage was first extracted with 4M-guanidinium chloride to remove proteoglycans. This step also extracted type I collagen. After pepsin solubilization of the residue, three additional, genetically distinct collagen types could be separated by fractional salt precipitation. On SDS (sodium dodecyl sulphate)/polyacrylamide-gel electrophoresis they were identified as type II collagen, (1 alpha, 2 alpha, 3 alpha) collagen and M-collagen fragments, a collagen pattern identical with that found in hyaline cartilage. Types I, II, (1 alpha, 2 alpha, 3 alpha) and M-collagen fragments represent 20, 75, 3.5, and 1% respectively of the total collagen. In frozen sections of ear cartilage, type II collagen was located by immunofluorescence staining in the extracellular matrix, whereas type I collagen was closely associated with the chondrocytes. Within 24h after release from elastic cartilage by enzymic digestion, auricular chondrocytes began to synthesize type III collagen, in addition to the above-mentioned collagens. This was shown after labelling of freshly dissociated chondrocytes with [3H]proline 1 day after plating, fractionation of the pepsin-treated collagens from medium and cell layer by NaCl precipitation, and analysis of the fractions by CM(carboxymethyl)-cellulose chromatography and SDS/polyacrylamide-gel electrophoresis. The 0.8 M-NaCl precipitate of cell-layer extracts consisted predominantly of type II collagen. The 0.8 M-NaCl precipitate obtained from the medium contained type I, II, and III collagen. In the supernatant of the 0.8 M-NaCl precipitation remained, both in the cell extract and medium, predominantly 1 alpha-, 2 alpha-, and 3 alpha-chains and M-collagen fragments. These results indicate that auricular chondrocytes are similar to chondrocytes from hyaline cartilage in that they produce, with the exception of type I collagen, the same collagen types in vivo, but change their cellular phenotype more rapidly after transfer to monolayer culture, as indicated by the prompt onset of type III collagen synthesis.

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