The vertebrate upper lip forms from initially freely projecting maxillary, medial nasal, and lateral nasal prominences at the rostral and lateral boundaries of the primitive oral cavity. These facial prominences arise during early embryogenesis from ventrally migrating neural crest cells in combination with the head ectoderm and mesoderm and undergo directed growth and expansion around the nasal pits to actively fuse with each other. Initial fusion is between lateral and medial nasal processes and is followed by fusion between maxillary and medial nasal processes. Fusion between these prominences involves active epithelial filopodial and adhering interactions as well as programmed cell death. Slight defects in growth and patterning of the facial mesenchyme or epithelial fusion result in cleft lip with or without cleft palate, the most common and disfiguring craniofacial birth defect. Recent studies of craniofacial development in animal models have identified components of several major signaling pathways, including Bmp, Fgf, Shh, and Wnt signaling, that are critical for proper midfacial morphogenesis and/or lip fusion. There is also accumulating evidence that these signaling pathways cross-regulate genetically as well as crosstalk intracellularly to control cell proliferation and tissue patterning. This review will summarize the current understanding of the basic morphogenetic processes and molecular mechanisms underlying upper lip development and discuss the complex interactions of the various signaling pathways and challenges for understanding cleft lip pathogenesis.
(c) 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.