Musculoskeletal System - Cartilage Development

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Endochondral bone


The musculoskeletal system consists of skeletal muscle, bone, and cartilage and is mainly mesoderm in origin with some neural crest contribution.

Fetal head (week 12)

The mesoderm forms nearly all the connective tissues of the musculoskeletal system. Each tissue (cartilage, bone, and muscle) goes through many different mechanisms of differentiation. Recent studies[1] show that Sox9 acts as a key regulator of early chondrocyte differentiation.

The intraembryonic mesoderm can be broken into paraxial, intermediate and lateral mesoderm relative to its midline position. During the 3rd week the paraxial mesoderm forms into "balls" of mesoderm paired either side of the neural groove, called somites. Somites appear bilaterally as pairs at the same time and form earliest at the cranial (rostral,brain) end of the neural groove and add sequentially at the caudal end. This addition occurs so regularly that embryos are staged according to the number of somites that are present. Different regions of the somite differentiate into dermomyotome (dermal and muscle component) and sclerotome (forms vertebral column). An example of a specialized musculoskeletal structure can be seen in the development of the limbs.

Skeletal muscle forms by fusion of mononucleated myoblasts to form mutinucleated myotubes. Bone is formed through a lengthy process involving ossification of a cartilage formed from mesenchyme. Two main forms of ossification occur in different bones, intramembranous (eg skull) and endochondrial (eg limb long bones) ossification. Ossification continues postnatally, through puberty until mid 20s. Early ossification occurs at the ends of long bones.

Musculoskeletal and limb abnormalities are one of the largest groups of congenital abnormalities.

Musculoskeletal Links: Introduction | mesoderm | somitogenesis | limb | cartilage | bone | bone timeline | bone marrow | shoulder | pelvis | axial skeleton | skull | joint | skeletal muscle | muscle timeline | tendon | diaphragm | Lecture - Musculoskeletal | Lecture Movie | musculoskeletal abnormalities | limb abnormalities | developmental hip dysplasia | cartilage histology | bone histology | Skeletal Muscle Histology | Category:Musculoskeletal
Historic Embryology - Musculoskeletal  
1853 Bone | 1885 Sphenoid | 1902 - Pubo-femoral Region | Spinal Column and Back | Body Segmentation | Cranium | Body Wall, Ribs, and Sternum | Limbs | 1901 - Limbs | 1902 - Arm Development | 1906 Human Embryo Ossification | 1906 Lower limb Nerves and Muscle | 1907 - Muscular System | Skeleton and Limbs | 1908 Vertebra | 1908 Cervical Vertebra | 1909 Mandible | 1910 - Skeleton and Connective Tissues | Muscular System | Coelom and Diaphragm | 1913 Clavicle | 1920 Clavicle | 1921 - External body form | Connective tissues and skeletal | Muscular | Diaphragm | 1929 Rat Somite | 1932 Pelvis | 1940 Synovial Joints | 1943 Human Embryonic, Fetal and Circumnatal Skeleton | 1947 Joints | 1949 Cartilage and Bone | 1957 Chondrification Hands and Feet | 1968 Knee

Some Recent Findings

  • L-type voltage-gated Ca2+ channel CaV1.2 regulates chondrogenesis during limb development[2] "All cells, including nonexcitable cells, maintain a discrete transmembrane potential (V mem), and have the capacity to modulate V mem and respond to their own and neighbors' changes in V mem Spatiotemporal variations have been described in developing embryonic tissues and in some cases have been implicated in influencing developmental processes. Yet, how such changes in V mem are converted into intracellular inputs that in turn regulate developmental gene expression and coordinate patterned tissue formation, has remained elusive. Here we document that the V mem of limb mesenchyme switches from a hyperpolarized to depolarized state during early chondrocyte differentiation. This change in V mem increases intracellular Ca2+ signaling through Ca2+ influx, via CaV1.2, 1 of L-type voltage-gated Ca2+ channels (VGCCs). We find that CaV1.2 activity is essential for chondrogenesis in the developing limbs. Pharmacological inhibition by an L-type VGCC specific blocker, or limb-specific deletion of CaV1.2, down-regulates expression of genes essential for chondrocyte differentiation, including Sox9, Col2a1, and Agc1, and thus disturbs proper cartilage formation. The Ca2+-dependent transcription factor NFATc1, which is a known major transducer of intracellular Ca2+ signaling, partly rescues Sox9 expression. These data reveal instructive roles of CaV1.2 in limb development, and more generally expand our understanding of how modulation of membrane potential is used as a mechanism of developmental regulation."
  • Analysis of a limb-specific regulatory element in the promoter of the link protein gene[3] "Link protein is encoded by the Hapln1 gene and is a prototypical protein found in the cartilage matrix. It acts as an important component of the endochondral skeleton during early development. To study its transcriptional regulation, promoter fragments derived from the link protein gene were coupled to the β-galactosidase reporter and used to study in vivo transgene expression in mice. In day 15.5 mouse embryos, a link promoter fragment spanning -1020 to +40 nucleotides demonstrated highly specific β-galactosidase staining of skeletal structures, including the appendicular and axial cartilaginous tissues. Two shorter promoter fragments, spanning -690 to +40 and -315 to +40 nucleotides, demonstrated limb- and genitalia-specific expression resembling that of homeodomain-regulated tissues. Bioinformatic analysis revealed a highly conserved, Hox-like binding site (HLBS) at approximately -220 bp of the promoter, shared by both constructs, which contained the Hox-core consensus sequence TAATTA. Electromobility shift assays demonstrated binding of Hox-B4 recombinant protein to the HLBS, which was eliminated with nucleotide substitutions within the core-binding element. Co-transfection analysis of the HLBS demonstrated a 22-fold transcriptional activation by HoxA9 expression, which was ablated with a substitution within the core HLBS element. Together these findings establish promoter regions within the link protein gene that are important for in vivo expression and identify the potential role of homeodomain-containing proteins in controlling cartilage and limb gene expression."
  • Lin28a overexpression reveals the role of Erk signaling in articular cartilage development[4] "Adult articular cartilage shows limited tissue turnover, and therefore development of the proper structure of articular cartilage is crucial for life-long joint function. However, the mechanism by which the articular cartilage structure is developmentally regulated is poorly understood. In this study, we show evidence that activation of extracellular signal-regulated kinases (Erk1/2) in articular chondrocyte progenitors during developmental stages control articular cartilage thickness. We found that overexpression of Lin28a, an RNA-binding protein that regulates organismal growth and metabolism, in articular chondrocyte progenitor cells upregulated Erk signaling and increased articular cartilage thickness. Overexpression of a constitutively active Kras mimicked Lin28a overexpression, and inhibition of Erk signaling during embryonic stages normalized the cartilage phenotype of both Kras- and Lin28a-overexpressing mice. These results suggest that articular cartilage thickness is mainly determined during the process of embryonic synovial joint development, which is positively regulated by Erk signaling."

More recent papers  
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Search term: Cartilage Development | Cartilage Embryology | Chondrogenesis

Older papers  
These papers originally appeared in the Some Recent Findings table, but as that list grew in length have now been shuffled down to this collapsible table.

See also the Discussion Page for other references listed by year and References on this current page.

  • Long-term expandable SOX9+ chondrogenic ectomesenchymal cells from human pluripotent stem cells[1] "Here we report the successful generation and long-term expansion of SOX9-expressing CD271(+)PDGFRα(+)CD73(+) chondrogenic ectomesenchymal cells from the PAX3/SOX10/FOXD3-expressing MIXL1(-)CD271(hi)PDGFRα(lo)CD73(-) neural crest-like progeny of human pluripotent stem cells in a chemically defined medium supplemented with Nodal/Activin/transforming growth factorβ (TGFβ) inhibitor and fibroblast growth factor (FGF). When "primed" with TGFβ, such cells efficiently formed translucent cartilage particles, which were completely mineralized in 12 weeks in immunocompromized mice." Developmental Signals - Sox
  • Fibroblast growth factor and canonical WNT/β-catenin signaling cooperate in suppression of chondrocyte differentiation in experimental models of FGFR signaling in cartilage[5] Aberrant fibroblast growth factor (FGF) signaling disturbs chondrocyte differentiation in skeletal dysplasia, but the mechanisms underlying this process remain unclear. Recently, FGF was found to activate canonical WNT/β-catenin pathway in chondrocytes via Erk MAP kinase-mediated phosphorylation of WNT co-receptor Lrp6. Here, we explore the cellular consequences of such a signaling interaction. WNT enhanced the FGF-mediated suppression of chondrocyte differentiation in mouse limb bud micromass and limb organ cultures, leading to inhibition of cartilage nodule formation in micromass cultures, and suppression of growth in cultured limbs. Simultaneous activation of the FGF and WNT/β-catenin pathways resulted in loss of chondrocyte extracellular matrix, expression of genes typical for mineralized tissues and alteration of cellular shape. WNT enhanced the FGF-mediated downregulation of chondrocyte proteoglycan and collagen extracellular matrix via inhibition of matrix synthesis and induction of proteinases involved in matrix degradation. Expression of genes regulating RhoA GTPase pathway was induced by FGF in cooperation with WNT, and inhibition of the RhoA signaling rescued the FGF/WNT-mediated changes in chondrocyte cellular shape. Our results suggest that aberrant FGF signaling cooperates with WNT/β-catenin in suppression of chondrocyte differentiation."
  • Review - Current understanding on the molecular basis of chondrogenesis[6] "Endochondral bone formation involves multiple steps, consisting of the condensation of undifferentiated mesenchymal cells, proliferation and hypertrophic differentiation of chondrocytes, and then mineralization. To date, various factors including transcription factors, soluble mediators, extracellular matrices (ECMs), and cell-cell and cell-matrix interactions have been identified to regulate this sequential, complex process. Moreover, recent studies have revealed that epigenetic and microRNA-mediated mechanisms also play roles in chondrogenesis. Defects in the regulators for the development of growth plate cartilage often cause skeletal dysplasias and growth failure."
  • SOX9 determines RUNX2 transactivity by directing intracellular degradation[7] "In analyses of the mechanism by which SOX9 regulated RUNX2 function, we demonstrated that SOX9 induced a dose-dependent degradation of RUNX2. ...Furthermore, SOX9 was able to decrease the level of ubiquitinated RUNX2 and direct RUNX2 to the lysosome for degradation. SOX9 also preferentially directed β-catenin, an intracellular mediator of canonical Wnt signaling, for lysosomal breakdown."
  • SOX9 is a major negative regulator of cartilage vascularization, bone marrow formation and endochondral ossification[8] "...SOX9 is able to directly suppress Vegfa expression by binding to SRY sites in the Vegfa gene. Postnatally, bone marrow formation and cartilage resorption in transgenic offspring are resumed by massive invasion of capillaries through the cortical bone shaft, similar to secondary ossification. These findings imply that downregulation of Sox9 in the hypertrophic zone of the normal growth plate is essential for allowing vascular invasion, bone marrow formation and endochondral ossification."


  • The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (8th Edition) by Keith L. Moore and T.V.N Persaud - Moore & Persaud Chapter 15 the skeletal system
  • Larsen’s Human Embryology by GC. Schoenwolf, SB. Bleyl, PR. Brauer and PH. Francis-West - Chapter 11 Limb Dev (bone not well covered in this textbook)
  • Before we Are Born (5th ed.) Moore and Persaud Chapter 16,17: p379-397, 399-405
  • Essentials of Human Embryology Larson Chapter 11 p207-228


  • Identify the components of a somite and the adult derivatives of each component.
  • Give examples of sites of (a) endochondral and (b) intramembranous ossification and to compare these two processes.
  • Identify the general times (a) of formation of primary and (b) of formation of secondary ossification centres, and (c) of fusion of such centres with each other.
  • Briefly summarise the development of the limbs.
  • Describe the developmental abnormalities responsible for the following malformations: selected growth plate disorders; congenital dislocation of the hip; scoliosis; arthrogryposis; and limb reduction deformities.

Development Overview

Below is a very brief overview using simple figures of 3 aspects of early musculoskeletal development. More detailed overviews are shown on other notes pages Mesoderm and Somite, Vertebral Column, Limb in combination with serial sections and Carnegie images.

Mesoderm Development

Mesoderm cartoon 01.jpg Cells migrate through the primitive streak to form mesodermal layer. Extraembryonic mesoderm lies adjacent to the trilaminar embryo totally enclosing the amnion, yolk sac and forming the connecting stalk.
Mesoderm cartoon 02.jpg Paraxial mesoderm accumulates under the neural plate with thinner mesoderm laterally. This forms 2 thickened streaks running the length of the embryonic disc along the rostrocaudal axis. In humans, during the 3rd week, this mesoderm begins to segment. The neural plate folds to form a neural groove and folds.
Mesoderm cartoon 03.jpg Segmentation of the paraxial mesoderm into somites continues caudally at 1 somite/90minutes and a cavity (intraembryonic coelom) forms in the lateral plate mesoderm separating somatic and splanchnic mesoderm.

Note intraembryonic coelomic cavity communicates with extraembryonic coelom through portals (holes) initially on lateral margin of embryonic disc.

Mesoderm cartoon 04.jpg Somites continue to form. The neural groove fuses dorsally to form a tube at the level of the 4th somite and "zips up cranially and caudally and the neural crest migrates into the mesoderm.

Somite Development

Mesoderm cartoon 05.jpg Mesoderm beside the notochord (axial mesoderm, blue) thickens, forming the paraxial mesoderm as a pair of strips along the rostro-caudal axis.
Mesoderm cartoon 06.jpg Paraxial mesoderm towards the rostral end, begins to segment forming the first somite. Somites are then sequentially added caudally. The somitocoel, is a cavity forming in early somites, which is lost as the somite matures.
Mesoderm cartoon 07.jpg Cells in the somite differentiate medially to form the sclerotome (forms vertebral column) and dorsolaterally to form the dermomyotome.
Mesoderm cartoon 08.jpg The dermomyotome then forms the dermotome (forms dermis) and myotome (forms muscle).

Neural crest cells migrate beside and through somite.

Mesoderm cartoon 09.jpg The myotome differentiates to form 2 components dorsally the epimere and ventrally the hypomere, which in turn form epaxial and hypaxial muscles respectively. The bulk of the trunk and limb muscle coming from the Hypaxial mesoderm. Different structures will be contributed depending upon the somite level.

Limb Development

Mesoderm cartoon 09.jpg




  1. 1.0 1.1 Umeda K, Oda H, Yan Q, Matthias N, Zhao J, Davis BR & Nakayama N. (2015). Long-term expandable SOX9+ chondrogenic ectomesenchymal cells from human pluripotent stem cells. Stem Cell Reports , 4, 712-26. PMID: 25818812 DOI.
  2. Atsuta Y, Tomizawa RR, Levin M & Tabin CJ. (2019). L-type voltage-gated Ca2+ channel CaV1.2 regulates chondrogenesis during limb development. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. , 116, 21592-21601. PMID: 31591237 DOI.
  3. Rhodes CS, Matsunobu T & Yamada Y. (2019). Analysis of a limb-specific regulatory element in the promoter of the link protein gene. Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. , 518, 672-677. PMID: 31470976 DOI.
  4. Kobayashi T & Kozlova A. (2018). Lin28a overexpression reveals the role of Erk signaling in articular cartilage development. Development , 145, . PMID: 30042178 DOI.
  5. Buchtova M, Oralova V, Aklian A, Masek J, Vesela I, Ouyang Z, Obadalova T, Konecna Z, Spoustova T, Pospisilova T, Matula P, Varecha M, Balek L, Gudernova I, Jelinkova I, Duran I, Cervenkova I, Murakami S, Kozubik A, Dvorak P, Bryja V & Krejci P. (2015). Fibroblast growth factor and canonical WNT/β-catenin signaling cooperate in suppression of chondrocyte differentiation in experimental models of FGFR signaling in cartilage. Biochim. Biophys. Acta , 1852, 839-50. PMID: 25558817 DOI.
  6. Michigami T. (2014). Current understanding on the molecular basis of chondrogenesis. Clin Pediatr Endocrinol , 23, 1-8. PMID: 24532955 DOI.
  7. Cheng A & Genever PG. (2010). SOX9 determines RUNX2 transactivity by directing intracellular degradation. J. Bone Miner. Res. , 25, 2680-9. PMID: 20593410 DOI.
  8. Hattori T, Müller C, Gebhard S, Bauer E, Pausch F, Schlund B, Bösl MR, Hess A, Surmann-Schmitt C, von der Mark H, de Crombrugghe B & von der Mark K. (2010). SOX9 is a major negative regulator of cartilage vascularization, bone marrow formation and endochondral ossification. Development , 137, 901-11. PMID: 20179096 DOI.


Takigawa M. (2013). CCN2: a master regulator of the genesis of bone and cartilage. J Cell Commun Signal , 7, 191-201. PMID: 23794334 DOI.

Kawakami Y, Rodriguez-León J & Izpisúa Belmonte JC. (2006). The role of TGFbetas and Sox9 during limb chondrogenesis. Curr. Opin. Cell Biol. , 18, 723-9. PMID: 17049221 DOI.

Goldring MB, Tsuchimochi K & Ijiri K. (2006). The control of chondrogenesis. J. Cell. Biochem. , 97, 33-44. PMID: 16215986 DOI.

Shum L & Nuckolls G. (2002). The life cycle of chondrocytes in the developing skeleton. Arthritis Res. , 4, 94-106. PMID: 11879545 DOI.


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