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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Explain how the embryo forms from the zygote
  • Discuss the role of cleavage and gastrulation in animal development
  • Describe organogenesis

The process by which an organism develops from a single-celled zygote to a multi-cellular organism is complex and well regulated. The regulation occurs through signaling between cells and tissues and responses in the form of differential gene expression.

Early embryonic development

Fertilization is the process in which gametes (an egg and sperm) fuse to form a zygote ( [link] ). To ensure that the offspring has only one complete diploid set of chromosomes, only one sperm must fuse with one egg. In mammals, a layer called the zona pellucida    protects the egg. At the tip of the head of a sperm cell is a structure like a lysosome called the acrosome, which contains enzymes. When a sperm binds to the zona pellucida, a series of events, called the acrosomal reactions, take place. These reactions, involving enzymes from the acrosome, allow the sperm plasma membrane to fuse with the egg plasma membrane and permit the sperm nucleus to transfer into the ovum. The nuclear membranes of the egg and sperm break down and the two haploid nuclei fuse to form a diploid nucleus or genome.

Micrograph shows a sperm whose head is touching the surface of an egg. The egg is much larger than the sperm.
Fertilization is the process in which sperm and egg fuse to form a zygote. (credit: 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.

The development of multi-cellular organisms begins from this single-celled zygote, which undergoes rapid cell division, called cleavage ( [link] a ), to form a hollow ball of cells called a blastula ( [link] b ).

 Part a: illustration shows a fertilized egg divided into two, four, eight, sixteen and thirty-two cells. Part b: shows a hollow ball of cells. The cells on the surface are called the blastoderm, and the hollow center is called the blastocoel.
(a) During cleavage, the zygote rapidly divides into multiple cells. (b) The cells rearrange themselves to form a hollow ball 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)

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 will go on to form the embryo. The trophoblast secretes enzymes that allow implantation of the blastocyst into the endometrium of the uterus. The trophoblast will contribute to the placenta and nourish the embryo.

Concept in action

Visit the Virtual Human Embryo project at the Endowment for Human Development site to click through an interactive of the stages of embryo development, including micrographs and rotating 3-D images.

The cells in the blastula then rearrange themselves spatially to form three layers of cells. This process is called gastrulation    . During gastrulation, the blastula folds in on itself and cells migrate to form the three layers of cells ( [link] ) in a structure, the gastrula, with a hollow space that will become the digestive tract. Each of the layers of cells is called a germ layer and will differentiate into different organ systems.

Illustration shows a series of 3 steps in the formation of a blastula to a gastrula. The first step is a hollow ball of cells. In the second step, one section of the cells in the hollow ball starts to indent into the cavity, like when a hand is pushed into a balloon. In the third step, this section has indented all the way into the cavity, forming a 3 layered cup with a small opening called the blastopore. The three  layers of the cup are the ectoderm on the outside, the mesoderm in the middle, and the endoderm on the inside.
Gastrulation is the process wherein the cells in the blastula rearrange themselves to form the germ layers. (credit: modification of work by Abigail Pyne)

The three germ layers are the endoderm, the ectoderm, and the mesoderm. Cells in each germ layer differentiate into tissues and embryonic organs. The ectoderm gives rise to the nervous system and the epidermis, among other tissues. The mesoderm gives rise to the muscle cells and connective tissue in the body. The endoderm gives rise to the gut and many internal organs.


Gastrulation leads to the formation of the three germ layers that give rise during further development to the different organs in the animal body. This process is called organogenesis    .

Organs develop from the germ layers through the process of differentiation. During differentiation, the embryonic stem cells express specific sets of genes that will determine their ultimate cell type. For example, some cells in the ectoderm will express the genes specific to skin cells. As a result, these cells will take on the shape and characteristics of epidermal cells. The process of differentiation is regulated by location-specific chemical signals from the cell’s embryonic environment that sets in play a cascade of events that regulates gene expression.

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, during 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 the digestive system and other internal organs. Organogenesis is the formation of organs from the germ layers. Each germ layer gives rise to specific tissue types.

Questions & Answers

what makes golgi body in plants
Abdulkareem Reply
name the membrane of the plants
how can turners syndrome be corrected before birth
During organs transplantation, the organs cannot be taken from just anybody since the graft would be rejected sooner or later due to
Liter Reply
Non-MHC compatibility on the organ and an attack from the patient's immune system.
what makes golgi body in plants
what is integument system
Joy Reply
Cellular respiration
Lucy Reply
what are the characteristics of living things
Ruth Reply
Movement Respiration Nutrition/Feeding Irritability/Sensitivity Growth Excretion Reproduction Deat/Life span
What makes children from the same father and mother sometimes don't look alike?
identification of problems
Nana Reply
what happens in the process of raising the human arms
what is biology
Brandi Reply
first step in scientific method
In an investigation the pancreatic duct of a mammal was blocked.It was found that the blood sugar regulation remained normal while food digestion was impaired.Explain
Mac Reply
To begin with, obstruction of pancreatic duct will alter the blood sugar level as the juices responsible for glucose regulation will be rendered inconsequential. This will in turn affect the rate of digestion and absorbtion of digested food substances by the Villus .
characteristics of algae
Algae are eukaryotic organisms. Algae do not have roots and stems. Algae have chlorophyll and helps in carrying out photosynthesis.
Cell wall is the rigid layer enclosed by membranes of plants and prokayortic cell, it maintains the shape of the cell and serve as a protective barrier.
chizoba Reply
ECOLOGY: is a branch of biology that studies the interactions among organisms and their biophysical environment, which includes both biotic and abiotic components. 
via nutrient cycles and energy flows. For instance, the energy from the sun is captured by plants through photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is a biological process through which plants manufacture their own food with the aid of light from the sun and frc sources (e.g. cabon dioxide and water)
What is cell wall
Taiwo Reply
cell wall is the outemost rigid covering of the plants ,that provides protection to the plants.
what is integument system
The integument system is your skin and the largest system in the body.
what is protoplast?
The cytoplasm is inside of the cell, minus the nucleus. The protoplasm is the inside of the cell and the nucleus.
Out line of cell
what is ecology, ecosystem?
Nkeng Reply
what is digestive system
Lucky Reply
digestive system is the human syman system that icludes esopuges stomach o braking down of food in to useful substance to our body
definition of biology basics
Ritu Reply
the potential energy of a molecule can be inquired by their number of?
Jesus Reply
note on the structure of DNA
The chemical potential of a species in a mixture is defined as the rate of change of free energy of a thermodynamic system with respect to the change in the number of atoms or molecules of the species that are added to the system. 

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Source:  OpenStax, Concepts of biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11487/1.9
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