For our joints to move around freely, they are lubricated with cartilage. In growing mammals, this tissue is continuously made by the body. But, by adulthood, this cartilage will have been almost entirely replaced by bone. It is also difficult for adult bodies to replenish what cartilage does remain – such as that in the joints.
When growing new cartilage, the body uses so-called progenitor cells, which have the ability to turn into different cell types. Progenitor cells are recruited to the joints, where they transform into cartilage cells called chondrocytes, which generate new cartilage. But adults lack these progenitor cells, leaving them unfit to heal damaged cartilage after injury or diseases like osteoarthritis.
In contrast, certain groups of fishes, such as skates, sharks and rays, produce cartilage throughout their life — indeed their whole skeleton is made of cartilage. So, what is the difference between these cartilaginous fishes and mammals? Why can they generate cartilage throughout their lives, while humans are unable to? And does this mean that these adult fish are better at healing injured cartilage?
Marconi et al. used skates (Leucoraja erinacea) to study how cartilage develops, grows and heals in a cartilaginous fish. Progenitor cells were found in a layer that wraps around the cartilage skeleton (called the perichondrium). These cells were also shown to activate genes that control cartilage development. By labelling these progenitor cells, their presence and movements could be tracked around the fish. Marconi et al. found progenitor cells in adult skates that were able to generate chondrocytes. Skates were also shown to spontaneously repair damaged cartilage in experiments where cartilage was injured.
Marconi et al. have identified the skate as a new animal model for studying cartilage growth and repair. Studying the mechanisms that skate progenitor cells use for generating cartilage could lead to improvements in current therapies used for repairing cartilage in the joints.