Limb synovial joints are intricate structures composed of articular cartilage, synovial membranes, ligaments and an articular capsule. Together, these tissues give each joint its unique shape, organization and biomechanical function. Articular cartilage itself is rather complex and organized in distinct zones, including the superficial zone that produces lubricants and contains stem/progenitor cells. For many years there has been great interest in deciphering the mechanisms by which the joints form and come to acquire such unique structural features and diversity. Decades ago, classic embryologists discovered that the first overt sign of joint formation at each prescribed limb site was the appearance of a dense and compact population of mesenchymal cells collectively called the interzone. Work carried out since then by several groups has provided evidence that the interzone cells actively participate in joint tissue formation over developmental time. This minireview provides a succinct but comprehensive description of the many important recent advances in this field of research. These include studies using various conditional reporter mice to genetically trace and track the origin, fate and possible function of joint progenitor cells; studies on the involvement and roles in signaling pathways and transcription factors in joint cell determination and functioning; and studies using advanced methods of gene expression analyses to uncover novel genetic determinants of joint formation and diversity. The overall advances are impressive, and the findings are not only of obvious interest and importance but also have major implications in the conception of future translational medicine tools to repair and regenerate defective, overused or aging joints.
Keywords: Articular cartilage; Extracellular matrix; Interzone; Limb development; Progenitor cells; Signaling pathways; Skeletogenesis; Synovial joint formation; Transcription factors.
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