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What is Fertilization?
Fertilization is the joining of the genetic material of two different sex cells, called gametes, resulting in reproduction. Although most organisms go through fertilization for reproduction, the actual process of fertilization can differ significantly between organisms.
When discussing fertilization, it is important to note that fertilization and reproduction are not the same thing. Whereas fertilization refers to the process of two sex cells combining, reproduction is the ability of a species to propagate to the next generation. There are two forms of reproduction: asexual reproduction, and sexual reproduction. Asexual reproduction occurs when a new organism is formed from only one parent. Sexual reproduction on the other hand, is the process of forming a new organism from two parents. One important distinction of asexual reproduction from sexual reproduction is that asexual reproduction produces an offspring that will be the exact genetic replica of its parent, whereas sexual reproduction produces an offspring that is a genetic mixture of the two parents.
There are two ways fertilization can occur in sexual reproduction: external fertilization or internal fertilization. In simple terms, external fertilization takes place outside of the body. External fertilization generally occurs in water or damp environments. This is because the gametes need moisture to prevent from drying out. With external fertilization, the male and female organisms (e.g. fish, salamander, frog, aquatic plant, etc.) need to release their sex cell(s) into the water. The moisture and movement of the water helps move the cells, causing some of them to meet and fuse. In this process, fertilization happens by chance, and not all of the cells are able to meet and fuse.
Internal fertilization is when the egg and sperm meet inside of the body. Most of the time this occurs in the female body, but there are instances where the egg and sperm meet in the male body. In many cases, the sperm is motile, which means they are able to swim around the body to find an egg to fuse to. Internal fertilization usually occurs through sex organs that helps the sperm and egg to meet.
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Many people think fertilization occurs in the uterus or ovaries, but this isn’t true. Fertilization takes place in the fallopian tubes, which connect the ovaries to the uterus.
Fertilization happens when a sperm cell successfully meets an egg cell in the fallopian tube. Once fertilization takes place, this newly fertilized cell is called a zygote. From here, the zygote will move down the fallopian tube and into the uterus.
The zygote then burrows into the uterus lining. This is called implantation. When the zygote implants, it’s called a blastocyst. The uterus lining “feeds” the blastocyst, which eventually grows into a fetus.
An exception to this rule would happen with in vitro fertilization (IVF). In this case, eggs are fertilized in a lab.
If your fallopian tubes are blocked or missing, it’s still possible to get pregnant via IVF, as fertilization will take place outside your body. Once an embryo is fertilized using this method, it’s transferred to the uterus.
Fertilization doesn’t always occur, even if you ovulate
Ovulation is when a mature egg is released from one of your ovaries. If you ovulate and a sperm cell doesn’t successfully fertilize the egg, the egg will simply move down the fallopian tube, through the uterus, and out through the vagina. You’ll menstruate about two weeks later when the uterus lining is shed.
There are a number of reasons why fertilization might not happen. This includes use of contraception and infertility. If you’re having difficulty getting pregnant and have been trying for over a year (or more than six months if over the age of 35), speak to your healthcare provider.
A fraternal twin pregnancy occurs when two eggs are released during ovulation, and both eggs are fertilized
Usually, only one egg is released during ovulation. However, the ovaries sometimes release two eggs at once. It’s possible for both eggs to be fertilized by two different sperm cells. In this case, you might become pregnant with twins.
These twins will be known as fraternal twins (also called nonidentical twins). Because they come from two separate egg cells and two separate sperm cells, they won’t have the same DNA and might not look identical.
Fertility treatments like IVF can increase the likelihood of multiple births, according to Cleveland Clinic. This is because fertility treatments often involve transferring more than one embryo to the uterus at a time to increase the chances of pregnancy. Fertility drugs can also result in more than one egg being released during ovulation.
An identical twin pregnancy occurs when the fertilized egg splits
Sometimes, a single embryo splits after it’s been fertilized, resulting in identical twins. Because both cells come from the exact same egg cell and sperm cell, identical twins will have the same DNA, the same sex, and a nearly identical appearance.
The fertilized egg implants in the uterus
At the point of ovulation, the uterus wall is thick. Barring any complications, the fertilized egg (embryo) should go on to implant in the uterus by “sticking” to the thickened uterus wall.
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) considers someone pregnant only once the embryo is successfully implanted against the uterine wall. In other words, implantation marks the beginning of a pregnancy.
The embryo, however, might not implant. Emergency contraception, intrauterine devices (IUDs), and infertility could prevent the embryo from implanting.