The Human Body

Fertilization

Fertilization is the process in which gametes—a male's sperm and a female's egg or ovum—fuse together, producing a single cell that develops into an adult organism. Fertilization occurs in both plants and animals that reproduce sexually—that is, when a male and a female are needed to produce an offspring (see Reproduction).

Fertilization is a precise period in the reproductive process. It begins when the sperm contacts the outer surface of the egg and it ends when the sperm's nucleus fuses with the egg's nucleus. Fertilization is not instantaneous—it may take 30 minutes in sea urchins and up to several hours in mammals. After nuclear fusion, the fertilized egg is called a zygote. When the zygote divides to a two-cell stage, it is called an embryo.

Fertilization is necessary to produce a single cell that contains a full complement of genes. When a cell undergoes meiosis, gametes are formed—a sperm cell or an egg cell. Each gamete contains only half the genetic material of the original cell. During sperm and egg fusion in fertilization, the full amount of genetic material is restored: half contributed by the male parent and half contributed by the female.

For information on plant fertilization see the articles on Seed, Pollination, and Plant Propagation.