Cartilage and endochondral bone development require SOX9 activity to regulate chondrogenesis, chondrocyte proliferation, and transition to a non-mitotic hypertrophic state. The restricted and reciprocal expression of the collagen X gene, Col10a1, in hypertrophic chondrocytes and Sox9 in immature chondrocytes epitomise the precise spatiotemporal control of gene expression as chondrocytes progress through phases of differentiation, but how this is achieved is not clear. Here, we have identified a regulatory element upstream of Col10a1 that enhances its expression in hypertrophic chondrocytes in vivo. In immature chondrocytes, where Col10a1 is not expressed, SOX9 interacts with a conserved sequence within this element that is analogous to that within the intronic enhancer of the collagen II gene Col2a1, the known transactivation target of SOX9. By analysing a series of Col10a1 reporter genes in transgenic mice, we show that the SOX9 binding consensus in this element is required to repress expression of the transgene in non-hypertrophic chondrocytes. Forced ectopic Sox9 expression in hypertrophic chondrocytes in vitro and in mice resulted in down-regulation of Col10a1. Mutation of a binding consensus motif for GLI transcription factors, which are the effectors of Indian hedgehog signaling, close to the SOX9 site in the Col10a1 regulatory element, also derepressed transgene expression in non-hypertrophic chondrocytes. GLI2 and GLI3 bound to the Col10a1 regulatory element but not to the enhancer of Col2a1. In addition to Col10a1, paired SOX9–GLI binding motifs are present in the conserved non-coding regions of several genes that are preferentially expressed in hypertrophic chondrocytes and the occurrence of pairing is unlikely to be by chance. We propose a regulatory paradigm whereby direct concomitant positive and negative transcriptional control by SOX9 ensures differentiation phase-specific gene expression in chondrocytes. Discrimination between these opposing modes of transcriptional control by SOX9 may be mediated by cooperation with different partners such as GLI factors.
Chondrogenic differentiation is a key process in the formation of endochondral bone. Despite the wealth of information about gene expression patterns and signaling pathways important for this process, it is not clear how differentiation state-specificity of transcription is controlled. The transcription factor SOX9 regulates chondrocyte differentiation, proliferation, and entry into hypertrophy and is highly expressed in immature/proliferating chondrocytes. It directly transactivates Col2a1, enhancing this gene's expression in immature/proliferating chondrocytes. The Col10a1 gene is specifically expressed in hypertrophic chondrocytes in which Sox9 is downregulated. How is differentiation phase-specific transcription of genes controlled in chondrocytes, particularly during hypertrophy? We found that SOX9 directly represses Col10a1 expression in immature/proliferating chondrocytes of the growth plate, so that its expression is restricted to hypertrophic chondrocytes. Discrimination of this concomitant opposing transcriptional control may involve cooperation between SOX9 and different partners such as GLI factors (effectors of hedgehog signaling). SOX9 control of chondrocyte maturation therefore may be integrated with hedgehog signaling. Mutations in human SOX9 cause the skeletal malformation syndrome campomelic dysplasia, which is attributed to the disruption of the chondrogenic differentiation program because of failure to express SOX9 target genes. This interpretation should be revised to include inappropriate expression of genes normally repressed by SOX9.