Bone elongation is predominantly driven by the volume expansion of growth plate chondrocytes. This mechanism was initially believed to be "hypertrophy", describing a proportional increase of cell water and organelles. However, morphometrical analysis subsequently assumed the increase to be "swelling", resulting in a disproportionate increase of cell water (osmotically active fraction). Histological approaches were performed on fixed tissue, and for the "swelling" assumption to be valid, the osmotic sensitivity of living cells before and during volume increase should differ. To test this, analysis of images acquired by 2-photon laser scanning microscopy (2PLSM) were used to determine the osmotic sensitivity, and osmotically active/inactive proportions of in situ chondrocytes from 15 living rat growth plates exposed to varying media osmolarities (similar to 0-580 mOsm). The dimensions of cell volume swelling in hypotonic media were different to the preferential lengthening seen in vivo, confirming the complexity of directional cell volume increase. Boyle-van't Hoff analysis of cell volume over the range of media osmolarity indicated no significant difference (Student's t-test) in the osmotically inactive fraction, 39.5 +/- 2.9% and 47.0 +/- 4.3% (n = 13) for proliferative and hypertrophic zones, respectively, or the sensitivity of volume to changes in media osmolarity (proliferative 15.5 +/- 0.8 and hypertrophic zone 15.5 +/- 1.2%volume . Osm). The osmotic fractions did not change as chondrocytes progress from proliferative to hypertrophic regions of the growth plate. Our data suggest cell volume increase by hypertrophy may play a greater role in cell enlargement than swelling, and should be re-evaluated as a mechanism responsible for growth plate chondrocyte volume increase and hence bone elongation.