Activator-inhibitor dynamics of vertebrate limb pattern formation

Birth Defects Res C Embryo Today. 2007 Dec;81(4):305-19. doi: 10.1002/bdrc.20112.


The development of the vertebrate limb depends on an interplay of cellular differentiation, pattern formation, and tissue morphogenesis on multiple spatial and temporal scales. While numerous gene products have been described that participate in, and influence, the generation of the limb skeletal pattern, an understanding of the most salient feature of the developing limb--its quasiperiodic arrangement of bones, requires additional organizational principles. We review several such principles, drawing on concepts of physics and chemical dynamics along with molecular genetics and cell biology. First, a "core mechanism" for precartilage mesenchymal condensation is described, based on positive autoregulation of the morphogen transforming growth factor (TGF)-beta, induction of the extracellular matrix (ECM) protein fibronectin, and focal accumulation of cells via haptotaxis. This core mechanism is shown to be part of a local autoactivation-lateral inhibition (LALI) system that ensures that the condensations will be regularly spaced. Next, a "bare-bones" model for limb development is described in which the LALI-core mechanism is placed in a growing geometric framework with predifferentiated "apical," differentiating "active," and irreversibly differentiated "frozen" zones defined by distance from an apical source of a fibroblast growth factor (FGF)-type morphogen. This model is shown to account for classic features of the developing limb, including the proximodistal (PD) emergence over time of increasing numbers of bones. We review earlier and recent work suggesting that the inhibitory component of the LALI system for condensation may not be a diffusible morphogen, and propose an alternative mechanism for lateral inhibition, based on synchronization of oscillations of a Hes mediator of the Notch signaling pathway. Finally, we discuss how viewing development as an interplay between molecular-genetic and dynamic physical processes can provide new insight into the origin of congenital anomalies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Patterning / genetics
  • Body Patterning / physiology
  • Extremities / embryology*
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors / genetics
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Humans
  • Mesoderm / embryology
  • Models, Biological
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / genetics
  • Vertebrates / embryology*
  • Vertebrates / genetics


  • Transforming Growth Factor beta
  • Fibroblast Growth Factors