Endochondral bone formation begins with the development of a cartilage intermediate that is subsequently replaced by calcified bone. The mechanisms occurring during early chondrogenesis that control both mesenchymal cell differentiation into chondrocytes and cell proliferation are not clearly understood in vertebrates. Indian hedgehog (Ihh), one of the hedgehog signaling molecules, is known to control both the hypertrophy of chondrocytes and bone replacement; these processes are particularly important in postnatal endochondral bone formation rather than in early chondrogenesis. In this study, we utilized the maternal transfer of 5E1 to E12.5 in mouse embryos, a process that leads to an attenuation of Ihh activity. As a result, mouse limb bud chondrogenesis was inhibited, and an exogenous recombinant IHH protein enhanced the proliferation and differentiation of mesenchymal cells. Analysis of the genetic relationships in the limb buds suggested a more extensive role for Ihh and Runx genes in early chondrogenesis. The transfer of 5E1 decreased the expression of Runx2 and Runx3, whereas an exogenous recombinant IHH protein increased Runx2 and Runx3 expression. Moreover, a transcription factor Gli1 in hedgehog pathway enhances the direct induction of both Runx2 and Runx3 transcription. These findings suggested that Ihh signaling plays an important role in chondrocyte proliferation and differentiation via interactions with Runx2 and Runx3.
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