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Embryology of the Hand and Upper Extremity

Cole, Patrick MD; Kaufman, Yoav MD; Hatef, Daniel A. MD; Hollier, Larry H. Jr MD, FACS

Journal of Craniofacial Surgery: July 2009 - Volume 20 - Issue 4 - p 992-995
doi: 10.1097/SCS.0b013e3181abb18e
Original Articles

As a universal means of communication and a critical tool for survival, the human hand is of extraordinary importance to our evolutionary survival. As the product of countless overlapping chemical signals, the upper extremity is highly dependent on a multifactoral web of genetic and environmental factors. At the molecular level, specialized signaling centers guide limb development along 3 spatial limb axes: (1) proximodistal, (2) anteroposterior, and (3) dorsoventral. Within the growing limb bud, the 3 main signaling centers are (1) the apical ectodermal ridge, (2) the zone of polarizing activity, and (3) the nonridge ectoderm. Cells within these signaling centers govern the process of limb differentiation via secretion of various chemical messengers. Although each aspect of extremity growth seems directly dependent on a process-specific mechanism, overall limb development relies on the proper interaction of these countless protein factors. Here, we review the macroscopic development of the upper limb and discuss the complex mechanisms underlying differentiation of the human hand.

From the Department of Plastic Surgery, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas.

Received September 10, 2007, and in revised form July 16, 2008.

Accepted for publication July 17, 2008.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Daniel A. Hatef, MD, Department of Plastic Surgery, Baylor College of Medicine, 6621 Fannin St, Houston, TX 77030; E-mail:

© 2009 Mutaz B. Habal, MD