A competitive reverse transcriptase–PCR (RT-PCR) assay has been developed for the quantification of particular mRNA species in human articular cartilage. Competitor RNA species were synthesized that differed from the amplified target sequence only by the central insertion of an EcoRI restriction site. By using known amounts of synthetic target and competitor RNA, it was shown that competitor RNA molecules designed in this way are reverse-transcribed and amplified with equal efficiency to the target of interest. Furthermore quantification could be performed during the plateau phase of the PCR, which was necessary when using ethidium bromide fluorescence as a detection system. The inhibition of aggrecan and link-protein mRNA expression by interleukin 1 or tumour necrosis factor in monolayers of human articular chondrocytes quantified by this competitive RT-PCR method compared favourably with Northern hybridization studies. The main advantage of this technique is that it can be used to quantify levels of mRNA with RNA extracted directly from 100 mg wet weight of human articular cartilage. Age-related changes in aggrecan and link-protein mRNA were therefore quantified in human articular cartilage directly after dissection from the joint. The concentration of link-protein mRNA was higher in immature cartilage than in mature cartilage when expressed relative to the amount of glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase mRNA, but no age-related changes were observed in aggrecan mRNA expression. The ratio of aggrecan to link-protein mRNA was higher in mature cartilage than in immature tissue. These age-related differences in the molecular stoichiometry of aggrecan and link-protein mRNA might have implications with respect to the regulation of the formation and the stability of the proteoglycan aggregates in cartilage.

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