Cleavage (embryo)

Image Caption : Cleavage in Developing Embryo : Being shown is the embryonic cleavage or rapid division of a zygote to form a multicellular morula. A morula is an embryo at an early stage of embryonic development, consisting of approximately 12-32 cells (blastomeres) in a sold ball contained within the zona pellucida.

Cleavage Stage, Ovum

The earliest developmental stage of a fertilized ovum (ZYGOTE) during which there are several mitotic divisions within the ZONA PELLUCIDA. Each cleavage or segmentation yields two BLASTOMERES of about half size of the parent cell. This cleavage stage generally covers the period up to 16-cell MORULA.

National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine


form of mitotic cell division in which the cell divides but the total volume remains unchanged; this process serves to produce smaller and smaller cells

Pre-implantation Embryonic Development

Following fertilization, the zygote and its associated membranes, together referred to as the conceptus, continue to be projected toward the uterus by peristalsis and beating cilia. During its journey to the uterus, the zygote undergoes five or six rapid mitotic cell divisions. Although each cleavage results in more cells, it does not increase the total volume of the conceptus (Figure). Each daughter cell produced by cleavage is called a blastomere (blastos = "germ," in the sense of a seed or sprout).

Approximately 3 days after fertilization, a 16-cell conceptus reaches the uterus. The cells that had been loosely grouped are now compacted and look more like a solid mass. The name given to this structure is the morula (morula = "little mulberry"). Once inside the uterus, the conceptus floats freely for several more days. It continues to divide, creating a ball of approximately 100 cells, and consuming nutritive endometrial secretions called uterine milk while the uterine lining thickens. The ball of now tightly bound cells starts to secrete fluid and organize themselves around a fluid-filled cavity, the blastocoel. At this developmental stage, the conceptus is referred to as a blastocyst. Within this structure, a group of cells forms into an inner cell mass, which is fated to become the embryo. The cells that form the outer shell are called trophoblasts (trophe = "to feed" or "to nourish"). These cells will develop into the chorionic sac and the fetal portion of the placenta (the organ of nutrient, waste, and gas exchange between mother and the developing offspring).

The inner mass of embryonic cells is totipotent during this stage, meaning that each cell has the potential to differentiate into any cell type in the human body. Totipotency lasts for only a few days before the cells' fates are set as being the precursors to a specific lineage of cells.

Pre-Embryonic Cleavages

This figure shows the different stages of cell divisions taking place before the embryo is formed. The top panel shows the cell divisions occurring in the uterine tube and the bottom panel shows the cell divisions occurring in the uterus.

Pre-embryonic cleavages make use of the abundant cytoplasm of the conceptus as the cells rapidly divide without changing the total volume.

As the blastocyst forms, the trophoblast excretes enzymes that begin to degrade the zona pellucida. In a process called "hatching," the conceptus breaks free of the zona pellucida in preparation for implantation.

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