The shaping of the vertebrate head results from highly dynamic integrated processes involving the growth and exchange of signals between the ectoderm, the endoderm, the mesoderm and Cephalic Neural Crest Cells (CNCCs). During embryonic development, these tissues change their shape and relative position rapidly and come transiently in contact with each other. Molecular signals exchanged in restricted regions of tissue interaction are crucial in providing positional identity to the mesenchymes which will form the different skeletal and muscular components of the head. Slight spatio-temporal modifications of these signalling maps can result in profound changes in craniofacial development and might have contributed to the evolution of facial diversity. Abnormal signalling patterns could also be at the origin of congenital craniofacial malformations. This review brings into perspective recent work on spatial and temporal aspects of facial morphogenesis with particular focus on the molecular mechanisms of jaw specification.
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