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Fertilization and Early Embryonic Development

Tác giả: OpenStaxCollege

The process in which an organism develops from a single-celled zygote to a multi-cellular organism is complex and well-regulated. The early stages of embryonic development are also crucial for ensuring the fitness of the organism.


Fertilization, pictured in [link]a is the process in which gametes (an egg and sperm) fuse to form a zygote. The egg and sperm each contain one set of chromosomes. To ensure that the offspring has only one complete diploid set of chromosomes, only one sperm must fuse with one egg. In mammals, the egg is protected by a layer of extracellular matrix consisting mainly of glycoproteins called the zona pellucida. When a sperm binds to the zona pellucida, a series of biochemical events, called the acrosomal reactions, take place. In placental mammals, the acrosome contains digestive enzymes that initiate the degradation of the glycoprotein matrix protecting the egg and allowing the sperm plasma membrane to fuse with the egg plasma membrane, as illustrated in [link]b. The fusion of these two membranes creates an opening through which the sperm nucleus is transferred into the ovum. The nuclear membranes of the egg and sperm break down and the two haploid genomes condense to form a diploid genome.

(a) Fertilization is the process in which sperm and egg fuse to form a zygote. (b) Acrosomal reactions help the sperm degrade the glycoprotein matrix protecting the egg and allow the sperm to transfer its nucleus. (credit: (b) modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

To ensure that no more than one sperm fertilizes the egg, once the acrosomal reactions take place at one location of the egg membrane, the egg releases proteins in other locations to prevent other sperm from fusing with the egg. If this mechanism fails, multiple sperm can fuse with the egg, resulting in polyspermy. The resulting embryo is not genetically viable and dies within a few days.

Cleavage and Blastula Stage

The development of multi-cellular organisms begins from a single-celled zygote, which undergoes rapid cell division to form the blastula. The rapid, multiple rounds of cell division are termed cleavage. Cleavage is illustrated in ([link]a). After the cleavage has produced over 100 cells, the embryo is called a blastula. The blastula is usually a spherical layer of cells (the blastoderm) surrounding a fluid-filled or yolk-filled cavity (the blastocoel). Mammals at this stage form a structure called the blastocyst, characterized by an inner cell mass that is distinct from the surrounding blastula, shown in [link]b. During cleavage, the cells divide without an increase in mass; that is, one large single-celled zygote divides into multiple smaller cells. Each cell within the blastula is called a blastomere.

(a) During cleavage, the zygote rapidly divides into multiple cells without increasing in size. (b) The cells rearrange themselves to form a hollow ball with a fluid-filled or yolk-filled cavity called the blastula. (credit a: modification of work by Gray’s Anatomy; credit b: modification of work by Pearson Scott Foresman, donated to the Wikimedia Foundation)

Cleavage can take place in two ways: holoblastic (total) cleavage or meroblastic (partial) cleavage. The type of cleavage depends on the amount of yolk in the eggs. In placental mammals (including humans) where nourishment is provided by the mother’s body, the eggs have a very small amount of yolk and undergo holoblastic cleavage. Other species, such as birds, with a lot of yolk in the egg to nourish the embryo during development, undergo meroblastic cleavage.

In mammals, the blastula forms the blastocyst in the next stage of development. Here the cells in the blastula arrange themselves in two layers: the inner cell mass, and an outer layer called the trophoblast. The inner cell mass is also known as the embryoblast and this mass of cells will go on to form the embryo. At this stage of development, illustrated in [link] the inner cell mass consists of embryonic stem cells that will differentiate into the different cell types needed by the organism. The trophoblast will contribute to the placenta and nourish the embryo.

The rearrangement of the cells in the mammalian blastula to two layers—the inner cell mass and the trophoblast—results in the formation of the blastocyst.


The typical blastula is a ball of cells. The next stage in embryonic development is the formation of the body plan. The cells in the blastula rearrange themselves spatially to form three layers of cells. This process is called gastrulation. During gastrulation, the blastula folds upon itself to form the three layers of cells. Each of these layers is called a germ layer and each germ layer differentiates into different organ systems.

The three germs layers, shown in [link], are the endoderm, the ectoderm, and the mesoderm. The ectoderm gives rise to the nervous system and the epidermis. The mesoderm gives rise to the muscle cells and connective tissue in the body. The endoderm gives rise to columnar cells found in the digestive system and many internal organs.

The three germ layers give rise to different cell types in the animal body. (credit: modification of work by NIH, NCBI)

Section Summary

The early stages of embryonic development begin with fertilization. The process of fertilization is tightly controlled to ensure that only one sperm fuses with one egg. After fertilization, the zygote undergoes cleavage to form the blastula. The blastula, which in some species is a hollow ball of cells, undergoes a process called gastrulation, in which the three germ layers form. The ectoderm gives rise to the nervous system and the epidermal skin cells, the mesoderm gives rise to the muscle cells and connective tissue in the body, and the endoderm gives rise to columnar cells and internal organs.

Review Questions

Which of the following is false?

  1. The endoderm, mesoderm, ectoderm are germ layers.
  2. The trophoblast is a germ layer.
  3. The inner cell mass is a source of embryonic stem cells.
  4. The blastula is often a hollow ball of cells.

During cleavage, the mass of cells:

  1. increases
  2. decreases
  3. doubles with every cell division
  4. does not change significantly

Free Response

What do you think would happen if multiple sperm fused with one egg?

Why do mammalian eggs have a small concentration of yolk, while bird and reptile eggs have a large concentration of yolk?

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