Osteoclasts are multinucleated cells formed through specific recognition and fusion of mononuclear osteoclast precursors derived from hematopoietic stem cells. Detailed cellular events concerning cell fusion in osteoclast differentiation remain ambiguous. Tunneling nanotubes (TNTs), actin-based membrane structures, play an important role in intercellular communication between cells. We have previously reported the presence of TNTs in the fusion process of osteoclastogenesis. Here we analyzed morphological details of TNTs using scanning electron microscopy. The osteoclast precursor cell line RAW-D was stimulated to form osteoclast-like cells, and morphological details in the appearance of TNTs were extensively analyzed. Osteoclast-like cells could be classified into three types; early osteoclast precursors, late osteoclast precursors, and multinucleated osteoclast-like cells based on the morphological characteristics. TNTs were frequently observed among these three types of cells. TNTs could be classified into thin, medium, and thick TNTs based on the diameter and length. The shapes of TNTs were dynamically changed from thin to thick. Among them, medium TNTs were often observed between two remote cells, in which side branches attached to the culture substrates and beaded bulge-like structures were often observed. Cell-cell interaction through TNTs contributed to cell migration and rapid transport of information between cells. TNTs were shown to be involved in cell-cell fusion between osteoclast precursors and multinucleated osteoclast-like cells, in which movement of membrane vesicles and nuclei was observed. Formation of TNTs was also confirmed in primary cultures of osteoclasts. Furthermore, we have successfully detected TNTs formed between osteoclasts observed in the bone destruction sites of arthritic rats. Thus, formation of TNTs may be important for the differentiation of osteoclasts both in vitro and in vivo. TNTs could be one target cellular structure for the regulation of osteoclast differentiation and function in bone diseases.
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