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Fertilization: When Sperm Cell and Egg Cell Meet

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Fertilization is when a sperm cell and egg cell unite to form a single cell called a zygote.


This article is pending medical review.

Contributors

Written by Lea Dörner

Reviewed by Carolin Becker, Marjan Naghdi, Sophie Oppelt

Edited by Juliëtte Gossens

 

Fertilization is when a sperm cell and egg cell unite to form a single cell called a zygote. This cell contains genetic information from both parents. It's the first step in the development of an embryo. This article will provide a detailed explanation of the mechanisms involved in fertilization.


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(3) Fusion




 

What Is Fertilization?

We need two cells for the process of fertilization. We need a sperm cell from the male reproductive system, specifically from the testicles. We also need an egg (called an ovum) from the female reproductive system, specifically from the ovaries. These two cells, the sperm cell and the ovum, merge and unite to form a single cell called a zygote. This zygote is the first cell that could grow into an embryo (which becomes a baby). The zygote contains the genetic information from both sperm and egg. (1, 2)

In this article, we are going to explain the process and mechanisms of fertilization in more detail.


Gametes: What Makes Sperm and Eggs So Special?

Sperm cells are produced by the male reproductive system. Ova (the word for the plural of ovum, also known as egg cell) are produced by the female reproductive system. These cells are referred to as gametes. They are highly specialized for reproduction, which is needed to create a new organism (a new human!).


The Sperm Cell

The male reproductive system produces sperm cells in the testicles. These cells are very small and streamlined. They have a long tail known as a flagellum that propels them forward. This makes them specialized for traveling through the female reproductive tract to reach the egg cell. Sperm cells produce lots of energy so they can move forward. The genetic material, necessary for fertilization, is located only in the head of the sperm. The rest of the sperm is used for movement. (3, 4)


The Egg Cell

Egg cells, also known as ova, are the female reproductive cells and are designed for the development into a fetus. Egg cells are stored in the ovaries. Each month, one egg is released into one of the fallopian tubes during ovulation. If you want to know more about the monthly menstrual cycle, you can read about it here. If you want to learn more about the biology of egg cells, you can check out this article.


Unlike sperm cells, the ovum is a large cell. In fact, it’s the largest in the human body! This is very important, because the egg needs to store many of the nutrients and proteins that a growing embryo needs. Furthermore, the ovulated egg is surrounded by a protective layer called the zona pellucida. The zona pellucida prevents multiple sperm from fertilizing the egg. It makes sure that only one sperm penetrates the layer and fertilizes the ovum. (3, 4)


What Are Gametes?

Even though sperm and egg cells look different, they share one very important feature that is essential to their reproductive abilities. They are both gametes and contain only half the amount of DNA compared to other cells in the human body. Our DNA is a molecule that contains genes which carry our genetic information. Our body needs this information to know what to do. Because gametes only contain half the amount of DNA, they are referred to as haploid cells. Cells that contain the “complete amount” of DNA are referred to as diploid cells. Nearly all cells in your body that aren’t gametes, are diploid cells. (4, 5)


As the sperm and egg cell merge during fertilization, the zygote receives half of its DNA from the egg cell and half from the sperm cell. This way, it ends up with a “complete” set of DNA and it becomes a diploid cell. This feature of gametes and fertilization explains why children inherit characteristics from both of their parents. (4, 6)


This image shows that the gametes, a sperm cell and an egg cell, meet and fuse to form a zygote. The middle image (b) shows that only a single sperm cell can penetrate the protective layer over the egg cell. The zygote contains all DNA from both the egg cell and the sperm cell.
This image shows that the gametes (a), a sperm cell and an egg cell, meet and fuse (b) to form a zygote (c). The middle image (b) shows that only a single sperm cell can penetrate the protective layer over the egg cell. The zygote contains all DNA from both the egg cell and the sperm cell. Image by Lea Dörner.

The Stages of Fertilization

After learning about the unique characteristics of sperm and egg cells, let's discuss the actual process of fertilization, and what happens when the sperm and egg “meet”.

Fertilization can be divided into 3 stages: capacitation, acrosome reaction, and sperm-egg fusion, all of which we are going to explain in the following.

The Capacitation: Preparation of Sperm Cells

During unprotected sex between somebody with a vagina and somebody with a penis, millions of sperm cells are released into the vagina. From this moment on, the sperm embark on a journey through the reproductive tract of the person with the vagina. They swim through the cervix, towards the uterus, and then into the fallopian tubes. Once a month, during ovulation, an egg cell is released from the ovaries into one of the fallopian tubes (7).


The egg in the fallopian tube is the “target” of the sperm cells. They are guided to their destination by molecules that are secreted by the egg cell (8). This journey is necessary for fertilization. Only the fastest sperm cell can fertilize the egg. But right after ejaculation, sperm can’t fertilize an egg even if they reached it immediately. During their journey through the reproductive tract, the sperm cells are modified by the vaginal environment in many ways. This is known as capacitation. This process involves chemical changes caused by small molecules, proteins, and the acid level in the vagina. The end result is a sperm cell that can fertilize an egg.


In summary, capacitation can be described as the activation of sperm cells by the vaginal environment. Next, the sperm cell and egg cell meet. (1, 3)


The Acrosome Reaction: Interaction of Sperm and Egg

Only about 200 out of the 300 million sperm ejaculated during sex manage to reach their desired destination: the ovum (egg cell). The sperm that managed to reach the ovum now have to break through the protective layer called zona pellucida, which surrounds the ovum. The reaction by which the sperm break through this barrier is called the acrosome reaction. We’ll explain how it works.


When a sperm encounters the egg, it binds to its surface: the zona pellucida. The zona pellucida is a protective layer that surrounds the egg cell. It’s composed of special proteins. This layer is very important in the process of fertilization (9). For example, it serves as a barrier between different animal species. This means that a hamster's sperm can’t fertilize a human egg, for instance.


When a sperm cell reaches the zona pellucida, the head of the sperm releases a substance called the acrosome. This substance contains enzymes (special proteins) that help the sperm break through the zona pellucida to reach the egg. The acrosome can be thought of as a “key” for the “door” that is the zona pellucida.


Once a sperm has reacted with the zona pellucida, the layer “locks” for all other sperm that come after it. That’s why typically only the first sperm to reach an egg fertilizes the egg. The sperm cells that failed to fertilize the egg simply break down. Eventually, they are naturally expelled from the body. Now, the fastest sperm is ready to fuse with the egg! (1, 2, 4, 9, 10)


The Fusion of Sperm and Egg

Once a sperm has undergone the acrosome reaction and penetrated the zona pellucida, it can merge with the egg. Both cells are surrounded by a thin layer of proteins called a membrane. These membranes open up a little bit to let the contents of the sperm cell and the egg cell mix. During the fusion process, the entire contents of the sperm are sucked into the egg. The two cells merge to form a single cell, called the zygote. This zygote contains the combined DNA (genes) from the sperm and egg cell and is the first cell of the developing embryo. After fertilization, the zygote travels down the fallopian tube and starts to divide and multiply, to finally implant into the wall of the womb. That's where the embryo can grow bigger and bigger until it's born as a baby. (4, 11)

Timing of Fertilization

Timing is an important factor when it comes to fertilization. The fertile window, or the time frame when a person with a uterus can become pregnant, is limited to a few days during each menstrual cycle. This is because when an egg is released during ovulation, it has a short lifespan and is destined to die within hours to days if not fertilized.


On the other hand, sperm can survive inside the female reproductive system for up to five days. This means that if somebody ovulates within five days of having unprotected vaginal sex with a man or somebody with a penis, the sperm is able to fertilize the egg and cause a pregnancy (4, 12).


Remember that anybody with the right parts can get pregnant! If you have testicles and a penis, you can get somebody pregnant who has a vagina, uterus and ovaries, even if they’re taking gender-affirming hormones such as testosterone, for example.


 

In summary, sperm cells have to travel a long way and undergo many changes before they can fertilize an egg cell. The egg cell is protected from all these sperm cells by a special layer. Only the fastest sperm cell that can break through this layer can fuse with the egg cell. The result is one cell, the zygote, that contains all nutrients and genetic information that the sperm cell and egg cell carried. The wonder of life starts small!


From there, the zygote can grow into an embryo, then a fetus, and is finally born as a baby.

 

References


  1. Gupta SK. Role of zona pellucida glycoproteins during fertilization in humans. Journal of Reproductive Immunology. 2015;108:90-7. DOI: 10.1016/j.jri.2014.08.006

  2. Georgadaki K, Khoury N, Spandidos DA, Zoumpourlis V. The molecular basis of fertilization (Review). International Journal of Molecular Medicine. 2016;38(4):979-86. DOI: 10.3892/ijmm.2016.2723

  3. Georgadaki K, Khoury N, Spandidos DA, Zoumpourlis V. The molecular basis of fertilization (Review). International Journal of Molecular Medicine. 2016;38(4):979-86. DOI: 10.3892/ijmm.2016.2723

  4. Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, Raff M, Roberts K and Walter P. Molecular biology of the cell. 4th ed. Oxford University Press; 2003.

  5. Jacobs PA. The chromosome complement of human gametes. Oxford reviews of reproductive biology. 1992;14:47-72.

  6. Tosti E, Boni R. Electrical events during gamete maturation and fertilization in animals and humans. Human Reproduction Update. 2004;10(1):53-65. DOI: 10.1093/humupd/dmh006

  7. Holesh JE, Bass AN, Lord M. Physiology, Ovulation. In: StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing, Treasure Island (FL); 2022.

  8. Contreras HR, Llanos MN. Detection of progesterone receptors in human spermatozoa and their correlation with morphological and functional properties. International Journal of Andrology. 2001;24(4):246-52. DOI: 10.1046/j.1365-2605.2001.00294.x

  9. Green DP. Three-dimensional structure of the zona pellucida. Reviews of Reproduction. 1997;2:147-56. DOI: 10.1530/revreprod/2.3.147

  10. Evans JP. The molecular basis of sperm–oocyte membrane interactions during mammalian fertilization. Human Reproduction Update. 2002;8(4):297-311. DOI: 10.1093/humupd/8.4.297

  11. Deneke VE, Pauli A. The fertilization enigma: How sperm and egg fuse. Annual review of cell and developmental biology. 2021;37:391-414. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-cellbio-120219-021751

  12. Wilcox AJ, Dunson D, Baird DD. The timing of the “fertile window” in the menstrual cycle: day specific estimates from a prospective study. BMJ. 2000;321(7271):1259-62. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.321.7271.1259


Please note: the information we provide to you here is for educational purposes only. If you’re experiencing any discomfort or have any complaints or questions about your health, please contact your doctor or other relevant health professional. We don’t provide medical advice.


Figures created with BioRender.com

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