Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Understanding the Conception, Ovulation and Fertilization

Let's be honest while most of us enjoy or are at least quite intrigued by the act of conception, few of us understand what transpires between the extremely fun part of the process and the part where you start saving up for another human's college education.

Women are born with millions of immature eggs, which are contained in multicellular structures called follicles. Roughly once a month, the hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release follicle-stimulating hormone. This hormone prompts several follicles small, fluid-filled cysts to develop into mature eggs.

One of these will grow dominant over the others and, within two to three days following its maturity, the egg will react to the release of a luteinizing hormone it stimulates the sex hormones needed for pregnancy and push through the wall of the ovary. The follicle that initially released the egg sends out a call for increased estrogen production. This estrogen is the body's cue that an egg is now mature.

This egg only has 24 hours to find its partner: a sperm cell that can penetrate its outer layer. It's normal for 3 out of 10 sperm cells to be abnormally formed, and for 4 out of 10 to be bad swimmers. The odds are poor for any single sperm cell which may be a male or a female sperm cell for one thing, it has about a quarter-billion competitors that will be joining it in the vagina.

Within minutes of ejaculation, most of the sperm cells will die due to the acidic nature of the vagina. They're viewed initially at least by the woman's immune system as foreign bodies that should be destroyed. From there, they must enter the cervix, swim through cervical mucus, enter the uterus and find the opening to the fallopian tube; and once they're there, if no egg is present or on the way, it's been a fruitless journey for the hard-charging survivors.

But how does the egg make its own arrival in the fallopian tube? How is it fertilized? And why is a college education so expensive for the product of a fertilized egg? In order to understand the conception process, first we must understand ovulation, and it just so happens to be what we'll discuss in the next section.

Females are born with millions of immature eggs, hundreds of which will mature in their lifetimes. Each egg is about the size of a pinhead.

Women get their periods in cycles that occur about every 28 days, though it's normal for cycles to last 21 to 35 days, or even 45 days for young women. Between periods, women ovulate, releasing a mature egg from one of the ovaries. Ovulation usually occurs about a week before or after a woman's period, although ovulation can be quite irregular and can occur even during the period. Generally, however, counting from the last menstrual period, most women will ovulate sometime between day 11 and day 21.

Some women are able to feel an ache in the ovary area during ovulation. It's also possible to detect ovulation through a change in cervical secretion, which will be wetter and more slippery directly before and during ovulation. Ovulation usually causes a small dip in body temperature, followed by a spike, and women often measure their temperatures when trying to detect ovulation. Ovulation may also coincide with an increased sex drive, light spotting, a feeling of being bloated and even heightened senses, such as taste or smell.

Normally, one egg passes from either of the ovaries through the fallopian tubes. This only happens once per cycle. Sometimes two eggs (or, rarely, more) are released within a single 24-hour span. If both eggs are fertilized, it can result in fraternal twins.

The fallopian tube is where fertilization occurs. Each ovary is attached to a fallopian tube, and the opening from ovary to fallopian tube is about half an inch (13 millimeters) in diameter, but narrows down to a much smaller opening at the other end. Inside the fallopian tubes are tiny hairs called cilia. They help pass the egg through the tube from the ovary toward the uterus. The entire journey takes several days, during which the egg exists in a perfect environment that provides it with nutrients.

Meanwhile, the uterus prompted by signals released by the follicle that formed the egg has formed an internal lining (endometrium) rich in blood and nutrients that's prepared to house and nurture the egg should it become fertilized. If no fertilization occurs, the egg disintegrates into the uterine lining that will soon pass from the body during a woman's period.

As long as a sperm cell is alive in the fallopian tube, it's capable of fertilizing an egg. If there's no egg in the fallopian tube, there's no chance of fertilization. The fallopian tubes are about four inches (10 centimeters) long and transport the egg from the ovary to the uterus. They also provide sperm that make it that far with nutrients and a safe environment, the same kind the egg enjoys as it passes through. Of the millions of sperm cells that initially enter the cervix, there may be anywhere from one to a couple hundred that arrive at the fallopian tube.

Eggs will survive about a day after they're released from the ovaries. If not fertilized, they'll break down. It's only during this day that a woman can become pregnant, though it may be a result of a sexual encounter days earlier, since sperm can survive in the fallopian tubes for a few days.

When an egg does pass through, the sperm have receptors that allow them to smell the eggs, which are surrounded by cells releasing the sweet scent: progesterone. Sperm cells most definitely become very active when an egg is present. In fact, progesterone makes sperm become so active that they slough off layers of proteins. Both the surge in activity and the loss of proteins enables sperm to pierce the egg. This process is called capacitation. Once this occurs, the sperm only have a few hours to live. Only a few perhaps half a dozen or less sperm cells will ever share proximity with the egg.

How does the sperm cell actually penetrate the egg? The head of the sperm, once making contact with the exterior of the egg, will more or less pop, releasing enzymes that allow it to cross through the barrier. Once a sperm cell penetrates the exterior of the egg, fertilization occurs; its DNA payload is delivered as the sperm is absorbed by the egg. The genetic blueprint of the child is now set in stone. Once a single sperm enters the egg, the egg's protective protein covering changes and doesn't allow other sperm to enter. From one egg that has been fertilized by one sperm cell, encoded genetic information coupled with cell growth will eventually create an entire human being.


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