Treatment of common and debilitating degenerative cartilage diseases particularly osteoarthritis is a clinical challenge because of the limited capacity of the tissue for self-repair. Because of their unlimited capacity for self-renewal and ability to differentiate into multiple lineages, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) are a potentially powerful tool for repair of cartilage defects. The primary objective of the present study was to develop culture systems and conditions that enable hESCs to directly and uniformly differentiate into the chondrogenic lineage without prior embryoid body (EB) formation, since the inherent cellular heterogeneity of EBs hinders obtaining homogeneous populations of chondrogenic cells that can be used for cartilage repair. To this end, we have subjected undifferentiated pluripotent hESCs to the high density micromass culture conditions we have extensively used to direct the differentiation of embryonic limb bud mesenchymal cells into chondrocytes. We report that micromass cultures of pluripotent hESCs undergo direct, rapid, progressive, and substantially uniform chondrogenic differentiation in the presence of BMP2 or a combination of BMP2 and TGF-β1, signaling molecules that act in concert to regulate chondrogenesis in the developing limb. The gene expression profiles of hESC-derived cultures harvested at various times during the progression of their differentiation has enabled us to identify cultures comprising cells in different phases of the chondrogenic lineage ranging from cultures just entering the lineage to well differentiated chondrocytes. Thus, we are poised to compare the abilities of hESC-derived progenitors in different phases of the chondrogenic lineage for cartilage repair. J. Cell. Physiol. 224: 664–671, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.