Mechanisms of synovial joint and articular cartilage formation: Recent advances, but many lingering mysteries



Synovial joints are elegant, critically important, and deceptively simple biomechanical structures. They are comprised of articular cartilage that covers each end of the opposing skeletal elements, synovial fluid that lubricates and nourishes the tissues, ligaments that hold the skeletal elements in check, and a fibrous capsule that insulates the joints from surrounding tissues. Joints also exhibit an exquisite arrays of shapes and sizes, best exemplified by the nearly spherical convex femoral head articulating into a nearly spherical concave hip acetabulum, or a phalangeal joint with two condyles on the distal side articulating in reciprocally-shaped sockets on the opposing proximal side. Though few in number, joint tissues are highly specialized in structure and function. This is illustrated by articular cartilage with its unique extracellular matrix, unique biomechanical resilience, its largely avascular nature, and its ability to persist through life with minimal turnover of its cells and components. The fact that interest in synovial joints has remained unabated for decades is a reflection of their fundamental importance for organism function and quality of life, and for their susceptibility to a variety of acquired and congenital conditions, most importantly arthritis. This has led to many advances in this field that encompass molecular genetics to biomechanics to medicine. Regrettably, what continues to be poorly understood are the mechanisms by which synovial joints actually form in the developing embryo. If available, this information would be not only of indisputable biological interest, but would also have significant biomedical ramifications, particularly in terms of designing novel tissue regeneration or reconstruction therapies. This review focuses on recent advances in understanding the mechanisms of synovial joint formation in the limbs, and places and discusses the information within the context of classic studies and the many mysteries and questions that remain unanswered. Birth Defects Research (Part C) 75:237–248, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc.