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The initial modeling and subsequent development of the skeleton is controlled by complex gene-environment interactions. Biomechanical forces may be one of the major epigenetic factors that determine the form and differentiation of skeletal tissues. In order to test the hypothesis that static compressive forces are transduced into molecular signals during early chondrogenesis, we have developed a unique three-dimensional collagen gel cell culture system which is permissive for the proliferation and differentiation of chondrocytes. Mouse embryonic day 10 (E10) limb buds were microdissected and dissociated into cells which were then cultured within a collagen gel matrix and maintained for up to 10 days. Static compressive forces were exerted onto these cultures. The time course for expression pattern and level for cartilage specific markers, type II collagen and aggrecan, and regulators of chondrogenesis, Sox9 and IL-1beta, were analyzed and compared with non-compressed control cultures. Under compressive conditions, histological evaluation showed an apparent acceleration in the rate and extent of chondrogenesis. Quantitatively, there was a significant 2- to 3-fold increase in type II collagen and aggrecan expression beginning at day 5 of culture and the difference was maintained through 10 days of cultures. Compressive force also causes an elevated level of Sox9, a transcriptional activator of type II collagen. In contrast, the expression and accumulation of IL-1beta, a transcriptional repressor of type II collagen was down-regulated. We conclude that static compressive forces promote chondrogenesis in embryonic limb bud mesenchyme, and propose that the signal transduction from a biomechanical stimuli can be mediated by a combination of positive and negative effectors of cartilage specific extracellular matrix macromolecules.