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Previous studies have confirmed that maternal tobacco smoking causes intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR) and skeletal growth retardation. Among a multitude of chemicals associated with cigarette smoking, nicotine is one of the leading candidates for causing low birth weights. However, the possible mechanism of delayed chondrogenesis by prenatal nicotine exposure remains unclear. We investigated the effects of nicotine on fetal growth plate chondrocytes in vivo and in vitro. Rats were given 2.0 mg/kg·d of nicotine subcutaneously from gestational days 11 to 20. Prenatal nicotine exposure increased the levels of fetal blood corticosterone and resulted in fetal skeletal growth retardation. Moreover, nicotine exposure induced the inhibition of matrix synthesis and down-regulation of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) signaling in fetal growth plates. The effects of nicotine on growth plates were studied in vitro by exposing fetal growth plate chondrocytes to 0, 1, 10, or 100 μM of nicotine for 10 days. Nicotine inhibited matrix synthesis and down-regulated IGF-1 signaling in chondrocytes in a concentration-dependent manner. These results suggest that prenatal nicotine exposure induces delayed chondrogenesis and that the mechanism may involve the down-regulation of IGF-1 signaling and the inhibition of matrix synthesis by growth plate chondrocytes. The present study aids in the characterization of delayed chondrogenesis caused by prenatal nicotine exposure, which might suggest a candidate mechanism for intrauterine origins of osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.▸ Prenatal nicotine-exposure could induce delayed chondrogenesis in fetal rats. ▸ Nicotine inhibits matrix synthesis of fetal growth plate chondrocytes. ▸ Nicotine inhibits IGF-1 signaling pathway in fetal growth plate chondrocytes.