There is increasing evidence that osteocytes regulate multiple aspects of bone remodeling through bi-directional communication with osteoblasts. This is potentially mediated through cell-cell contact via osteocytic dendritic processes, through the activity of secreted factors, or both. To test whether cell-cell contact affects gene expression patterns in osteoblasts and osteocytes, we used a co-culture system where calvarial osteoblasts and IDG-SW3 osteocytes were allowed to touch through a porous membrane, while still being physically separated to allow for phenotypic characterization. Osteoblast/osteocyte cell-contact resulted in up-regulation of osteoblast differentiation genes in the osteoblasts, when compared to wells where no cell contact was allowed. Examination of osteocyte gene expression when in direct contact with osteoblasts also revealed increased expression of osteocyte-specific genes. These data suggest that physical contact mutually enhances both the osteoblastic and osteocytic character of each respective cell type. Interestingly, Gja1 (a gap junction protein) was increased in the osteoblasts only when in direct contact with the osteocytes, suggesting that Gja1 may mediate some of the effects of direct cell contact. To test this hypothesis, we treated the direct contact system with the gap junction inhibitor 18-alpha-glycyrrhetinic acid and found that Bglap expression was significantly inhibited. This suggests that osteocytes may regulate late osteoblast differentiation at least in part through Gja1. Identification of the specific factors involved in the enhancement of differentiation of both osteoblasts and osteocytes when in direct contact will uncover new biology concerning how these bone cells communicate.
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