Human fertilization

The acrosome reaction for a sea urchin, a similar process. Note that the picture shows several stages of one and the same spermatozoon - only one penetrates the ovum
Illustration depicting ovulation and fertilization.
The sperm entering the ovum using the acrosome head to break down the zona pellucida.

Human fertilization is the union of a human egg and sperm, usually occurring in the ampulla of the fallopian tube.[1] The result of this union is the production of a zygote cell, or fertilized egg, initiating prenatal development. Scientists discovered the dynamics of human fertilization in the nineteenth century.[2]

The process of fertilization involves a sperm fusing with an ovum. The most common sequence begins with ejaculation during copulation, follows with ovulation, and finishes with fertilization. Various exceptions to this sequence are possible, including artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, external ejaculation without copulation, or copulation shortly after ovulation.[3][4][5] Upon encountering the secondary oocyte, the acrosome of the sperm produces enzymes which allow it to burrow through the outer jelly coat of the egg. The sperm plasma, then fuses with the egg's plasma membrane, the sperm head disconnects from its flagellum and the egg travels down the Fallopian tube to reach the uterus.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a process by which egg cells are fertilized by sperm outside the womb, in vitro.

Anatomy

Corona radiata

The sperm binds through the corona radiata, a layer of follicle cells on the outside of the secondary oocyte. Fertilization occurs when the nucleus of both a sperm and an egg fuse to form a diploid cell, known as zygote. The successful fusion of gametes forms a new organism.

Cone of attraction and perivitelline membrane

Where the spermatozoon is about to pierce, the yolk (ooplasm) is drawn out into a conical elevation, termed the cone of attraction or reception cone. Once the spermatozoon has entered, the peripheral portion of the yolk changes into a membrane, the perivitelline membrane, which prevents the passage of additional spermatozoa.[6]

Sperm preparation

At the beginning of the process, the sperm undergoes a series of changes, as freshly ejaculated sperm is unable or poorly able to fertilize.[7] The sperm must undergo capacitation in the female's reproductive tract over several hours, which increases its motility and destabilizes its membrane, preparing it for the acrosome reaction, the enzymatic penetration of the egg's tough membrane, the zona pellucida, which surrounds the oocyte.

Zona pellucida

After binding to the corona radiata the sperm reaches the zona pellucida, which is an extra-cellular matrix of glycoproteins. A special complementary molecule on the surface of the sperm head binds to a ZP3 glycoprotein in the zona pellucida. This binding triggers the acrosome to burst, releasing enzymes that help the sperm get through the zona pellucida.

Some sperm cells consume their acrosome prematurely on the surface of the egg cell, facilitating the penetration by other sperm cells. As a population, sperm cells have on average 50% genome similarity so the premature acrosomal reactions aid fertilization by a member of the same cohort.[8] It may be regarded as a mechanism of kin selection.

Recent studies have shown that the egg is not passive during this process.[9][10]

Cortical reaction

Once the sperm cells find their way past the zona pellucida, the cortical reaction occurs. Cortical granules inside the secondary oocyte fuse with the plasma membrane of the cell, causing enzymes inside these granules to be expelled by exocytosis to the zona pellucida. This in turn causes the glyco-proteins in the zona pellucida to cross-link with each other — i.e. the enzymes cause the ZP2 to hydrolyse into ZP2f — making the whole matrix hard and impermeable to sperm. This prevents fertilization of an egg by more than one sperm. The cortical reaction and acrosome reaction are both essential to ensure that only one sperm will fertilize an egg.[11]

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