• Cell death;
  • Myogenesis;
  • Head muscles;
  • Chick embryo;
  • Apoptosis


Degenerating myofibers have been reported in the embryos and neonates of a number of birds and mammals, but neither the pervasiveness of the phenomenon nor the spatiotemporal patterns of degeneration has been examined in detail. Using transmission electron microscopy, we determined the patterns of muscle cell death in the chick biventer cervicis, a head extensor muscle. Cell death is most pronounced at incubation days 10 through 15, and occurs throughout the muscle. This is the period during which many myofiber clusters segregate into individual fibers, each with a separate basal lamina, and secondary myofibers become demarcated. Cells of largest diameter, presumably the primary myofibers, are preferentially affected. Degenerating cells exhibit a cohort of cytological features consistent with apoptosis, including the presence of dense, darkly-staining, hypercontracted myofibrils, misshapen nuclei with irregular chromatin condensations along the nuclear envelope, and scores of cytoplasmic vesicles and vacuoles. In cross section some large diameter muscle cells are characterized by sparse, flocculent cytoplasm that is devoid of myofibrils and organelles. Some show disintegrating cell membranes. In longitudinal section 200–300 μm long regions of hypercontracted myofibrils alternate with areas devoid of fibrils; this arrangement suggests that the myofibrils break into segments that are in register along one part of a muscle fiber and entirely absent from the adjacent length of fiber. We have observed similar patterns of muscle cell degeneration in the complexus, splenius cervicis, depressor mandibulae, and branchiomandibularis muscles. By day 18 of incubation most signs of degeneration are absent and by hatching (day 21) the muscle fibers all appear healthy. Many of these cytological changes in embryonic head muscle cells are characteristic of programmed cell death. We hypothesize that large-scale death of myocytes is a normal part of avian myogenesis and an important mechanism for affecting the transformation from embryonic to hatching muscle patterning. © 1995 Wiley-Liss, Inc.