The joints are a diverse group of skeletal structures, and their genesis, morphogenesis, and acquisition of specialized tissues have intrigued biologists for decades. Here we review past and recent studies on important aspects of joint development, including the roles of the interzone and morphogenesis of articular cartilage. Studies have documented the requirement of interzone cells in limb joint initiation and formation of most, if not all, joint tissues. We highlight these studies and also report more detailed interzone dissection experiments in chick embryos. Articular cartilage has always received special attention owing to its complex architecture and phenotype and its importance in long-term joint function. We pay particular attention to mechanisms by which neonatal articular cartilage grows and thickens over time and eventually acquires its multi-zone structure and becomes mechanically fit in adults. These and other studies are placed in the context of evolutionary biology, specifically regarding the dramatic changes in limb joint organization during transition from aquatic to land life. We describe previous studies, and include new data, on the knee joints of aquatic axolotls that unlike those in higher vertebrates, are not cavitated, are filled with rigid fibrous tissues and resemble amphiarthroses. We show that when axolotls metamorph to life on land, their intra-knee fibrous tissue becomes sparse and seemingly more flexible and the articular cartilage becomes distinct and acquires a tidemark. In sum, there have been considerable advances toward a better understanding of limb joint development, biological responsiveness, and evolutionary influences, though much remains unclear. Future progress in these fields should also lead to creation of new developmental biology-based tools to repair and regenerate joint tissues in acute and chronic conditions.
Keywords: Articular cartilage; Joint evolution; Limb synovial joints; Morphogenesis.
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