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Under normal conditions, articular chondrocytes persist throughout postnatal life, whereas "transient" chondrocytes, which constitute the bulk of prenatal and early postnatal cartilaginous skeleton, undergo maturation, hypertrophy, and replacement by bone cells. The mechanisms regulating the markedly different behavior and fate of articular and transient chondrocytes are largely unclear. In the present study, we asked whether articular chondrocytes possess dominant antimaturation properties which may subtend their ability to persist throughout life. Adult chicken articular chondrocytes and transient maturing chondrocytes from the core region of day 17 chick embryo cephalic sternum were cultured or cocultured in serum-free agarose conditions. When the sternal cells were grown by themselves, they quickly developed into hypertrophic type X collagen-synthesizing cells; however, when they were cocultured with as few as 10% articular chondrocytes or fed with articular chondrocyte-conditioned medium, their maturation was markedly impaired, as revealed by a sharp drop in type X collagen synthesis. A similar, albeit less potent, antimaturation activity characterized resting and proliferating immature chondrocytes isolated from other regions of embryonic sternum. Transforming growth factor-β2 (TGF-β2) was previously suggested to be an inhibitor of chondrocyte maturation. We found, however, that treatment with a neutralizing antiserum to TGF-β did not counteract the inhibition of maturation in cocultures of articular and maturing core sternal chondrocytes. Indeed, articular chondrocytes produced and accumulated relatively low levels of TGF-β in their culture medium, about 15 ng/ml/48 h, of which over 90% was latent; surprisingly, maturing sternal core chondrocytes accumulated over 10-fold more TGF-β in the medium, about 150 ng/ml/48 h, of which over 20% was endogenously active. These results indicate that articular chondrocytes do possess dominant antimaturation properties which appear to be TGF-β independent. The TGF-βs may thus have a more prominent role in the terminal phases of chondrocyte maturation, as indicated by their abundance and greater activity in hypertrophic chondrocytes.