Chick embryo epiphyseal chondrocytes cultured in media containing HEPES, TES, and BES zwitterion buffers, used in combination or independently, consistently developed cytoplasmic vacuoles. This cytoplasmic vacuolation was resolved when the zwitterion buffered media was replaced by media containing bicarbonate:CO2 enriched air buffer. Vacuoles were infrequent or absent in cultures grown in bicarbonate:CO2 enriched air. Chondrocytes with an established extracellular matrix showed less vacuolation than fibroblastlike and polygonal shaped cells that lacked such a matrix. The granular endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi dictyosomes of zwitterion buffered chondrocytes were distended and contained a flocculent amorphous material. Cytoplasmic vacuoles (0.5 to 3.0 micron diam) formed by the fusion and intracellular accumulation of Golgi vesicles and vacuoles also contained a flocculent material enhanced by ruthenium red. Membrane bound extracellular vacuoles containing ruthenium red stained proteoglycan aggregates were common in the extracellular matrix of zwitterion buffered cultures but were generally absent from bicarbonate treated cultures. Electron dense calcium deposits seemed much larger and more numerous in the presence of zwitterion buffers. It is suggested that HEPES, TES, and BES buffers, used alone or in combination, may adversely affect cell membrane systems, and thus the transport or secretory mechanisms operative in cultured chondrocytes, or both, resulting in vacuole formation and the intracellular accumulation of synthesized export material. Although the mechanism by which HEPES, TES, and BES induce these changes remains unclear, the use of zwitterion buffers in biological preparations should be treated with caution.
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