The developing limb is a major model for pattern formation in vertebrate embryos. Many of the seminal discoveries of the mechanisms involved in patterning have been made using chick embryos because of the ease of manipulating their developing limbs. More recently, the molecular basis of limb pattern formation has been increasingly uncovered and now, with the availability of genomic resources, the genetic approaches available are even more powerful. Nevertheless, since the limb is ultimately built of cells, gene action must ultimately be translated into cell behaviour and a major challenge will be to integrate genetics with molecular and cellular biology. In this review, we will first outline the stages in limb development, the major interacting signalling pathways that pattern the limb and the molecules involved. We will describe fate maps of the developing limb, and discuss what is known about cellular activities including proliferation, death, adhesiveness, communication and migration during the patterning process. Finally we will explore how these cell activities produce form.