Embryology - What is Embryology?

Embryology is a science which is about the development of an embryo from the fertilization of the ovum to the fetus stage. After cleavage, the dividing cells, or morula, becomes a hollow ball, or blastula, which develops a hole or pore at one end.

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 rise to the digestive organs, lungs and bladder.
  • The middle layer, or mesoderm, gives rise to the muscles, skeleton and blood system.
  • The outer layer of cells, or ectoderm, gives rise to the nervous system and skin.

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, the developing human is then called a fetus. 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.

Many principles of embryology apply to both invertebrate animals 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.

Currently, embryology has become an important research area for studying the genetic control of the development process (e.g. morphogens), its link to cell signalling, its importance for the study of certain diseases and mutations and in links to stem cell research.

Further Reading


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