Limb muscles separate from one another in a complex but highly stereotyped sequence and spatial pattern. The process of separation is characterized by the progression of a region of increased extracellular space, the cleavage zone, along the proximodistal axis between the individual muscle anlagen. We analyzed ultrastructurally the muscles and cleavage zone during the separation of two representative muscles, the developing sartorius and iliotibialis in the chick thigh, to establish an accurate baseline for an analysis of the mechanisms of separation. Comparisons of the morphology and distribution of cells before and after separation show no evidence that muscles became separated by the massive influx of an exterior cell population; if populations invade the cleavage zone, they are small. We do find characteristic transitions within the cell population of the cleavage zone in situ that could accomplish cleavage without invoking massive cell movements. These progressive transitions within the cleavage zone include a loss of close cell-cell interactions, an increase in extracellular space, the assumption of a more stellate morphology by mesenchyme cells, and a gradual alteration in the composition of the extracellular matrix from one typical of early muscle to one typical of loose connective tissue. Myotubes do differentiate between the incipient muscles, ruling out the possibility that the location where muscles will separate is defined by sites where myotubes fail to differentiate. Instead, the myotubes in the cleavage zone gradually diminish in number and appear to be specifically recognized and removed from the cleavage zone by phagocytes. We suggest that the transitions within the cleavage zone, including the loss of muscle cells, are a result of the progressive differentiation of loose connective tissue. If so, then the spatial pattern and process of cleavage is a consequence of spatially programmed cell differentiation.
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