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Curr Top Dev Biol. 2007;79:1-36.

The development of synovial joints.

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  • 1Cardiff School of Biosciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff CF103US, Wales, United Kingdom.


During vertebrate evolution, successful adaptation of animal limbs to a variety of ecological niches depended largely on the formation and positioning of synovial joints. The function of a joint is to allow smooth articulation between opposing skeletal elements and to transmit biomechanical loads through the structure, and this is achieved through covering the ends of bones with articular cartilage, lubricating the joint with synovial fluid, using ligaments to bind the skeletal elements together, and encapsulating the joint in a protective fibrous layer of tissue. The diversity of limb generation has been proposed to occur through sequential branching and segmentation of precartilaginous skeletal elements along the proximodistal axis of the limb. The position of future joints is first delimited by areas of higher cell density called interzones initially through an as yet unidentified inductive signal, subsequently specification of these regions is controlled hierarchically by wnt14 and gdf5, respectively. Joint-forming cell fate although specified is not fixed, and joints will fuse if growth factor signaling is perturbed. Cavitation, the separation of the two opposing skeletal elements, and joint morphogenesis, the process whereby the joint cells organize and mature to establish a functional interlocking and reciprocally shaped joint, are slowly being unraveled through studying the plethora of molecules that make up the unique extracellular matrix of the forming structure. The joint lining tissue, articular cartilage, is avascular, and this limits its reparative capacity such that arthritis and associated joint pathologies are the single largest cause of disability in the adult population. Recent discoveries of adult stem cells and more specifically the isolation of chondroprogenitor cells from articular cartilage are extending available therapeutic options, though only with a more complete understanding of synovial joint development can such options have greater chances of success.

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