Early development of the malleus and incus in humans.


It is widely accepted by developmental biologists that the malleus and incus of the mammalian middle ear are first pharyngeal arch derivatives, a contention based originally on classical embryology that has now been backed up by molecular evidence from rodent models. However, it has been claimed in several studies of human ossicular development that the manubrium of the malleus and long process of the incus are actually derived from the second arch. This 'dual-arch' interpretation is commonly presented in otolaryngology textbooks, and it has been used by clinicians to explain the aetiology of certain congenital abnormalities of the human middle ear. In order to re-examine the origins of the human malleus and incus, we made three-dimensional reconstructions of the pharyngeal region of human embryos from 7 to 28 mm crown-rump length, based on serial histological sections from the Boyd Collection. We considered the positions of the developing ossicles relative to the pharyngeal pouches and clefts, and the facial and chorda tympani nerves. Confirming observations from previous studies, the primary union between first pharyngeal pouch and first cleft found in our youngest specimens was later lost, the external meatus developing rostroventral to this position. The mesenchyme of the first and second arches in these early embryos seemed to be continuous, but the boundaries of the developing ossicles proved to be very hard to determine at this stage. When first distinguishable, the indications were that both the manubrium of the malleus and the long process of the incus were emerging within the first pharyngeal arch. We therefore conclude that the histological evidence, on balance, favours the 'classical' notion that the human malleus and incus are first-arch structures. The embryological basis of congenital ossicular abnormalities should be reconsidered in this light.