Biology » The Reproductive System » Fertilization and Early Embryonic Development

Fertilization

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

Fertilization, pictured in figure (a) below 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 figure (b) below. 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.

Part A is a micrograph that shows a sperm whose head is touching the surface of an egg. The egg is much larger than the sperm. Part B is an illustration that shows the surface of the egg, which is coated with a zona pellucida. The sperm penetrates the zona pellucida and releases its DNA into the egg. At this point, changes in proteins just inside the egg’s cell membrane occur, preventing entry of other sperm.

(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.

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