The vertebrate Hox genes have been shown to be important for patterning the primary and secondary axes of the developing vertebrate embryo. The function of these genes along the primary axis of the embryo has been generally interpreted in the context of positional specification and homeotic transformation of axial structures. The way in which these genes are expressed and function during the development of the secondary axes, particularly the limb, is less clear. In order to provide a reference for understanding the role of the Hox genes in limb patterning, we isolated clones of 23 Hox genes expressed during limb development, characterized their expression patterns and analyzed their regulation by the signalling centers which pattern the limb. The expression patterns of the Abd-B-related Hoxa and Hoxd genes have previously been partially characterized; however, our study reveals that these genes are expressed in patterns more dynamic and complex than generally appreciated, only transiently approximating simple, concentric, nested domains. Detailed analysis of these patterns suggests that the expression of each of the Hoxa and Hoxd genes is regulated in up to three independent phases. Each of these phases appears to be associated with the specification and patterning of one of the proximodistal segments of the limb (upper arm, lower arm and hand). Interestingly, in the last of these phases, the expression of the Hoxd genes violates the general rule of spatial and temporal colinearity of Hox gene expression with gene order along the chromosome. In contrast to the Abd-B-related Hoxa and Hoxd genes, which are expressed in both the fore and hind limbs, different sets of Hoxc genes are expressed in the two limbs. There is a correlation between the relative position of these genes along the chromosome and the axial level of the limb bud in which they are expressed. The more 3′ genes are expressed in the fore limb bud while the 5′ genes are expressed in the hind limb bud; intermediate genes are transcribed in both limbs. However, there is no clear correlation between the relative position of the genes along the chromosome and their expression domains within the limb. With the exception of Hoxc-11, which is transcribed in a posterior portion of the hind limb, Hoxc gene expression is restricted to the anterior/proximal portion of the limb bud. Importantly, comparison of the distributions of Hoxc-6 RNA and protein products reveals posttranscriptional regulation of this gene, suggesting that caution must be exercised in interpreting the functional significance of the RNA distribution of any of the vertebrate Hox genes. To understand the genesis of the complex patterns of Hox gene expression in the limb bud, we examined the propagation of Hox gene expression relative to cell proliferation. We find that shifts in Hox gene expression cannot be attributed to passive expansion due to cell proliferation. Rather, phase-specific Hox gene expression patterns appear to result from a context-dependent response of the limb mesoderm to Sonic hedgehog. Sonic hedgehog (the patterning signal from the Zone of Polarizing Activity) is known to be able to activate Hoxd gene expression in the limb. Although we find that Sonic hedgehog is capable of initiating and polarizing Hoxd gene expression during both of the latter two phases of Hox gene expression, the specific patterns induced are not determined by the signal, but depend upon the temporal context of the mesoderm receiving the signal. Misexpression of Sonic hedgehog also reveals that Hoxb-9, which is normally excluded from the posterior mesenchyme of the leg, is negatively regulated by Sonic hedgehog and that Hoxc-11, which is expressed in the posterior portion of the leg, is not affected by Sonic hedgehog and hence is not required to pattern the skeletal elements of the lower leg.