Embryology facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Blastulation
1 - morula, 2 - blastula
Gastrulation
1 - blastula, 2 - gastrula with blastopore; orange - ectoderm, red - endoderm.
Human embryo 8 weeks
Dissection of human embryo, 38 mm - 8 weeks

Embryology is the branch of biology that studies the prenatal development of gametes, fertilization, and development of embryos and fetuses. Additionally, embryology encompasses the study of congenital disorders that occur before birth, known as teratology.

Embryonic development of animals

After cleavage, the dividing cells, or morula, becomes a hollow ball, or blastula, which develops a hole or pore at one end.

Bilateria

In bilateral animals, the blastula develops in one of two ways that divides the whole animal kingdom into two halves. If in the blastula the first pore (blastopore) becomes the mouth of the animal, it is a protostome; if the first pore becomes the anus then it is a deuterostome. The protostomes include most invertebrate animals, such as insects, worms and molluscs, while the deuterostomes include the vertebrates. In due course, the blastula changes into a more differentiated structure called the gastrula.

The gastrula with its blastopore soon develops three distinct layers of cells (the germ layers) from which all the bodily organs and tissues then develop:

  • The innermost layer, or endoderm, gives a rise to the digestive organs, the gills, lungs or swim bladder if present, and kidneys or nephrites.
  • The middle layer, or mesoderm, gives rise to the muscles, skeleton if any, and blood system.
  • The outer layer of cells, or ectoderm, gives rise to the nervous system, including the brain, and skin or carapace and hair, bristles, or scales.

Embryos in many species often appear similar to one another in early developmental stages. The reason for this similarity is because species have a shared evolutionary history. These similarities among species are called homologous structures, which are structures that have the same or similar function and mechanism, having evolved from a common ancestor.

Humans

Humans are bilaterals and deuterostomes.

In humans, the term embryo refers to the ball of dividing cells from the moment the zygote implants itself in the uterus wall until the end of the eighth week after conception. Beyond the eighth week after conception (tenth week of pregnancy), the developing human is then called a fetus.

History

Beetle larvae filtered sw
Beetle larvae

As recently as the 18th century, the prevailing notion in western human embryology was preformation: the idea that semen contains an embryo – a preformed, miniature infant, or homunculus – that simply becomes larger during development. The competing explanation of embryonic development was epigenesis, originally proposed 2,000 years earlier by Aristotle. Much early embryology came from the work of the Italian anatomists Aldrovandi, Aranzio, Leonardo da Vinci, Marcello Malpighi, Gabriele Falloppio, Girolamo Cardano, Emilio Parisano, Fortunio Liceti, Stefano Lorenzini, Spallanzani, Enrico Sertoli, and Mauro Rusconi. According to epigenesis, the form of an animal emerges gradually from a relatively formless egg. As microscopy improved during the 19th century, biologists could see that embryos took shape in a series of progressive steps, and epigenesis displaced preformation as the favoured explanation among embryologists.

After 1827 and Before 1950

Karl Ernst von Baer and Heinz Christian Pander proposed the germ layer theory of development; von Baer discovered the mammalian ovum in 1827. Modern embryological pioneers include Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, J.B.S. Haldane, and Joseph Needham. Other important contributors include William Harvey, Kaspar Friedrich Wolff, Heinz Christian Pander, August Weismann, Gavin de Beer, Ernest Everett Just, and Edward B. Lewis.

Human embryo 2
8–9-week human embryo

After 1950

After the 1950s, with the DNA helical structure being unravelled and the increasing knowledge in the field of molecular biology, developmental biology emerged as a field of study which attempts to correlate the genes with morphological change, and so tries to determine which genes are responsible for each morphological change that takes place in an embryo, and how these genes are regulated.

Vertebrate and invertebrate embryology

Many principles of embryology apply to invertebrates as well as to vertebrates. Therefore, the study of invertebrate embryology has advanced the study of vertebrate embryology. However, there are many differences as well. For example, numerous invertebrate species release a larva before development is complete; at the end of the larval period, an animal for the first time comes to resemble an adult similar to its parent or parents. Although invertebrate embryology is similar in some ways for different invertebrate animals, there are also countless variations. For instance, while spiders proceed directly from egg to adult form, many insects develop through at least one larval stage.


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