In most vertebrates the embryonic cartilaginous skeleton is replaced by bone during development. During this process, cartilage cells (chondrocytes) mineralize the extracellular matrix and undergo apoptosis, giving way to bone cells (osteocytes). In contrast, sharks and rays (elasmobranchs) have cartilaginous skeletons throughout life, where only the surface mineralizes, forming a layer of tiles (tesserae). Elasmobranch chondrocytes, unlike those of other vertebrates, survive cartilage mineralization and are maintained alive in spaces (lacunae) within tesserae. However, the functions of the chondrocytes in the mineralized tissue remain unknown. Applying a custom analysis workflow to high-resolution synchrotron microCT scans of tesserae, we characterize the morphologies and arrangements of stingray chondrocyte lacunae, using lacunar morphology as a proxy for chondrocyte morphology. We show that the cell density is comparable in unmineralized and mineralized tissue and that cells maintain similar volume even when they have been incorporated into tesserae. Our findings support previous hypotheses that elasmobranch chondrocytes, unlike those of other taxa, do not proliferate, hypertrophy or undergo apoptosis during mineralization. Tessera lacunae show zonal variation in their shapes, being flatter further from and more spherical closer to the unmineralized cartilage matrix, and larger in the center of tesserae. The lacunae show pronounced organization into parallel layers and strong orientation toward neighboring tesserae. Tesserae also exhibit local variation in lacunar density, with the density considerably higher near pores passing through the tesseral layer, suggesting pores and cells interact, and that pores may contain a nutrient source. We propose that the different lacunar types reflect the stages of the tesserae formation process, while also representing local variation in tissue architecture and cell function. Lacunae are linked by small passages (canaliculi) in the matrix to form elongated series at the tesseral periphery and tight clusters in the center of tesserae, creating a rich connectivity among cells. The network arrangement and the shape variation of chondrocytes in tesserae indicate that cells may interact within and between tesserae and manage mineralization differently from chondrocytes in other vertebrates, perhaps performing analogous roles to osteocytes in bone.
Chaumel, J., Schotte, M., Bizzarro, J. J., Zaslansky, P., Fratzl, P., Baum, D., & Dean, M. N. (2020). Co-aligned chondrocytes: Zonal morphological variation and structured arrangement of cell lacunae in tessellated cartilage. Bone, 134. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bone.2020.115264