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Science of Pregnancy Week Two: Fertility

18 Apr

Your egg, preparing for debut

Girls are born with ~1-2 million eggs in their ovaries. In adulthood, a fraction of these eggs ripen. In a typical menstrual cycle, one egg is launched each month on a great lazy river ride. It’s released from the ovary, swept up in the tendrils of the fallopian tube, and ushered by a gentle tide toward the uterus.

When you had your period last week, your body flushed out an egg that was not fertilized during that adventure. But your body is already at work preparing the next contestant.

If you are trying to conceive, your most fertile period is in this window: the week leading up to, and including, ovulation.  Check an ovulation calendar to identify when you are most likely to become pregnant.

During this time, several hormones are working like greek goddesses in your system, bestowing vital gifts to prepare your egg for its journey: protective shield, snack bags, a safe landing zone— and plenty of sperm-grabber, just in case.



Having sex to become pregnant: Why it is necessary?

15 Aug

The gorgeous plumes of a peacock are a classic example of a trait that emerged solely for sex appeal.

“Some are fancy on the outside.  Some are fancy on the inside.  Everybody’s fancy.  Everybody’s fine.  Your body’s fancy, and so is mine.”  –Fred Rogers (♫ listen here)

“Some mollusks (not many) can have children merely by sitting around and thinking about it.”   — E.B. White, Is Sex Really Necessary?

As it turns out, snail sex (a snail is a type of mollusk) is really far out:  Some can self-fertilize, some stab their mates during foreplay with harpoon-like “love darts,” and most snails have two sex organs, so they can do it both ways at the same time.  As E. B. White observed, “mollusks are infinitely varied in their loves, their hates and their predilections.”  See snails doing it!

The Science of Pregnancy Timeline– Week 0: Menstruation

15 Jun

Note: Because it can be hard to pinpoint exactly when a sperm and egg have merged, it is customary for midwives and doctors to start pregnancy calendars using the date of the mother’s last menstrual period, placing fertilization at “pregnancy week 2.”  To make this timeline consistent with the ones used for health visits (and other great timelines you may be reading), we are starting this one at “Week 0: Menstruation.”

The lining of the uterus– replaced monthly– is made to create a plush home for a fertilized egg.

The inner lining of the uterus is a big, red, comfy couch.

Its plushness is in place to welcome a fertilized egg to the dark, gentle world it will inhabit during nine months of growth. When no guest arrives, the luxurious couch goes out to make room for the next.

Menstruation is the end of one cycle and the beginning of the next. A signal goes out to the ovaries to begin preparing a new egg for release, two weeks later, into the fertile zone of the fallopian tubes.

An egg on this journey has already been through epic travels; it originally developed within your ovaries when you were just a fetus inside your mother’s uterus!

Each egg itself is a universe. What other thing in the entire world is so small and gives rise to something as large, beautiful, complex and long-lived as a human being? The egg’s capacity for creation precedes us by millennia and continues on in every species on the planet, in the annual bloomings of spring and the monthly cycles of women everywhere.

At the time of ovulation (two weeks before menstruation), the egg is at the edge of the island of the ovary. Hormones, a little like weather patterns, churn the seas around the ovaries until the egg breaks loose. This package is transferred directly to the superhighway of the fallopian tubes, where a journey of 3 to 4 inches will take several days. This is when fertilization may take place.

Typically, this journey toward the uterus is pretty solitary for the egg. It might hit viruses or bacteria, depending on the mother’s health. It could hit a road block if the mother’s had her tubes tied. And it could end up in a town of Hell’s Angels, and that’s the guy you just slept with.

If  fertilization happens, the egg will plant itself in the wall of the uterus. This big couch is also like the deep, rich, dark soil that you would find on the forest floor, where almost anything can grow.

If the egg is not fertilized within a day or two, it simply dissolves back into all that luscious warmth. Menstruation happens. And the cycle begins anew.

What’s next

Science of Pregnancy Timeline: Week 2 

Related posts

The Big. Ass. Egg.

About this timeline: Genedoe is an educational blog that aims to enhance the public's understanding of genetics– a topic that can inspire us to be healthier, to fathom the diversity and connectedness of living things on the planet, and to explore the comedies and tragedies that befall the human body.  The "Science of Pregnancy Timeline" is a 40-week calendar that we hope parents will read in conjunction with their nine months of expecting. (We will occasionally address 'you' with the assumption that you are a pregnant woman; we beg your pardon if this does not apply, and welcome you to our blog, where genetics is for everyone.) Thank you for your comments and your partnership in plumbing the depths and the wonders of pregnancy!

Pregnancy: Why do I feel crappy all the time?

1 Jun

Go look at a construction site. It’s a mess!

Even while things may appear normal on the outside, the same kind of heavy lifting and huge maneuvering is going on inside of the body.

The body is re-creating itself! 

Take, for example, the widening of the hips. Who is telling a mother’s body to prepare in this way, like a ball player slathering a glove with oil before a game? What’s going on at the mechanical level?

There’s a biochemical tool box that the body has to build structures, harden and soften them, and tear things down.

Those are the mother’s genes getting switched on, possibly for the first time. They’re working in response to signals that are being pumped out by the brain, the placenta, and even the baby’s brain. They give the body instructions for creating the tools it needs: The proteins that carry out all kinds of tasks in the uterus and throughout the mom’s body, including the hormones notorious for making us sleepy, nauseous, or grouchy.

If you were the size of a cell, you would look around at the enormous construction site of your body and be awed by the wrecking balls, delivery trucks, and bulldozers at work.

The body needs to rest and the brain needs to be patient and not hyper-vigilant wondering, “Is that gas, or cancer?” The attitude and approach of a mother is so important while the body is doing this work. It’s no cure, but it helps to know that it’s completely reasonable to feel exhausted or worse.


Miscarriage happens for a lot of really good reasons.

29 May

Loss is loss. And grief about loss is real.

But when miscarriage happens, it’s usually for a very good reason.

In the first weeks after conception, the genome is trying itself out.

“Can I make organs? If not, I am going to have a hard time on this planet. Let’s try again.”

Every baby that is born represents a spectacular cellular success. A cell that can magic itself into becoming a living being has to accomplish an elaborate trick; as we’ve pointed out before, making organs alone is like getting a Boeing 747 off the ground.

Life is rare and precious, but the possibility of life forming  is also astronomical. It’s why we have so many sperm and so many eggs. The whole system is set up to make life work. And that’s why they made sex fun.

So losing an embryo can be an opportunity to try again, and not a sign of something that is systematically wrong.

There’s a million ways that we form as snowflakes.

There’s a time to go at it again and have some more fun with it.

3 Bananas Long: A Genetics Song

15 Feb

Enjoy this genetics song written for our young Willa.

Body building: step one

26 Aug

All animals begin as a ball of cells and emerge as amazing sculptures.

The body-building process begins with gastrulation:  In most cases, an indentation in the cell ball produces an opening that will eventually become the anus.  Cells migrate to form the three basic layers of the body, and they establish the primary axes that determine the right/left and front/back sides of the animal.  Once they’ve been organized like little subgroups at a conference, interactions among appropriate cells initiate the process of organ creation.

In this video we can actually watch the gastrulation process unfolding in the blastula (cell ball) that will become a little white frog.

Nurture begins in the womb

25 Aug
Epigenetics is the study of the chemical reactions that govern which genes get turned on or off. Wikipedia image credited to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Am I hungry? Have I just gotten sloshed? Am I in outer space?

All of these factors affect how I am feeling, and less obviously, how my genes are functioning.

If I am a pregnant lady, factors like these become critical because they impact the activation and silencing of genes that coordinate the delicate orchestration of my baby’s development.

Remember, genes are the same in all of our cells, but our cells and body parts look and behave differently because certain genes within them are switched on or off. And in order for the cells of a developing embryo to emerge is a person, genes need to be switched on and off at just the right moment.

What’s controlling these switches? It’s not the genes themselves. Epigenetic signals –(click this for great videos and articles on epigenetics from the University of Utah’s Genetic Science Learning Center) –are the conductors that cue genes in and out at just the right time. They change in function of what we eat, smoke, breathe and drink. _Read on

The Science of Pregnancy Timeline: Week 4– How does the embryo ‘know’ what it should be shaped like?

8 Aug

Adapted from Gray's Anatomy, this surface illustration of a rabbit embryo looks just like a human's around day 13, with the central wedge forming the primitive streak (pr).

“It is not birth, marriage or death, but gastrulation, which is truly the most important time in your life.” –Biologist Lewis Wolpert

Like teens backpacking for a year before college, the immature cells of the embryo go a-travelling before they commit to becoming specific cell types like eye cells and liver cells. As it turns out, where they end up plays a huge role in what they’ll become.

In the first weeks of pregnancy, as the embryo grows from the size of a poppy seed to that of a lemon seed, its duplicating cells are moving and folding in patterns.

Image shared via Flickr by user Mammaoca2008.

If you’ve ever made a paper crane you know that you start by making creases in the paper that establish a center point, making subsequent folds perfectly symmetrical. So it is with the bodies of most all of earth’s creatures, which have two symmetrical sides. The origami analogy applies well to the early development of the embryo: The body becomes organized as layers of cells migrate, fold, and turn inward.

Around 13 days after conception, the cells of the pear-shaped embryo begin to gather at the midline, establishing the axis of the embryo called the “primitive streak.”

This development marks the beginning of “gastrulation,” (scientists again with the unsexy wordsmithing), — the establishment of the basic, 3-layered body plan.

Two weeks after fertilization, gastrulation is in full swing. (Note: most pregnancy timelines call this “week four,” since they measure from the date of the mother’s last menstrual period.)

The embryo divides into three layers:
• The outer layer will become the skin, hair, brain, nerves and spinal cord.
• The middle layer will form muscles and bones, heart and lungs, kidneys, blood vessels, testicles or ovaries.
• The inner layer will become the stuff betwixt your piehole and your corn hole, like the tongue, tonsils, and digestive system.
(For those of you taking the quiz, these are the ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm.)

The migrations of cells in the early embryo are critical, because cells that “know” where they are begin to behave differently, and it’s this behavior that drives development. Two ways a cell can “know” where it is: Certain signals or proteins may be more or less ample according to their location along up-and-down or front-and-back axes, making it possible for cells to “read” their location in the scheme of the body the way we read latitude and longitude lines on a map. Or, a cell “knows” its location by “communicating” with its nearest neighbors, by sending or receiving chemical signals.  Larry the skin cell working in a subcutaneous cubicle knows he is third in line for the “corner office” on the surface of the elbow, and he is waiting to move up as his predecessors retire.  And Larry himself will change as he rises in the ranks.

Cells behave differently according to where they are located:  They change shape, they attract or repel one another, they influence cells around them. Some cells self-destruct, as they do to create the space between forming fingers. A cell appropriately placed in the mesoderm, becoming part of the team that will build the heart, will begin to activate the protein-making genes that will make it a muscle cell.

Three weeks after conception (in pregnancy week 5), the embryo begins to have curves and bumps, thanks to differentiation, and is working hard to create organs. It now has muscle cells and blood cells, neurons and glial cells. The baby will be born not just with 10 fingers and 10 toes, but with some 250 cell types. These cell types, the same 250 or so that we have as adults, have identical genes. But they behave differently, and acquire distinct traits because they are expressing different genes, and thus creating different proteins, according to their placement in the body and their relationships with nearest neighbors.

Pregnancy timeline: 4 to 8 days after conception

5 Aug

Four days after fertilization, a wad of 16 to 32 identical cells (the berry-like “morula”) approaches the uterine cavity.

A week after fertilization, the blastocyst lands, thanks to cellular communication. Image by Tevah Platt.

But in the following day or two, it starts to look more like a dented soccer ball, with an outer ring of cells surrounding an inner cluster. Scientists have an unsexy name for this cell-wad: The blastocyst.

The geographic parsing of inner and outer cells in the blastocyst is exciting because it is the first step toward differentiation (the amazing sorting of cells into different cell types: for example, skin cells, blood cells, eye cells, etc.). The inner cells will later form the embryo, and the other cells will form the placenta.

These stem cells are the ones that are valued by researchers because they haven’t reached a point on the path of development at which they acquire super-specialized characteristics and become committed cell types like eye cells or liver cells. They are no longer “totipotent” (able to become any kind of cell); they are now “pluripotent” (able to become one of many kinds of cell in the future).

At this stage, communication across cells has ramped up with the creation of ion channels, gap junctions and protein channels– all fancy words for doors and windows through which cells can essentially chat with their neighbors.

Molecules that go in and out of these windows are the messages that circulate among the cells, allowing parts of the body to work together.

Seven or eight days after fertilization, the cells of the blastocyst also begin to coordinate with the cells in mom’s body.

For example, the blastocyst receives chemical signals from the lining of the uterus that guide them to a safe spot for landing. In turn, they secrete enzymes that clear the ground for implantation. Cellular cooperation will be critical over the next 9 months, not only for the exchange of nutrients and oxygen between mother and embryo, but for the orchestration of the embryo’s development.

We don’t often think about it, but we know from our everyday actions that our cells work together all the time. Our hands and mouths cooperate every time we eat a hunk of cheese. When Lady Gaga put on a suit made of meat, her eye cells and arm cells had to communicate with the brain cells that made that decision. Ask any person who is quadriplegic and has had his nerve cells cut off and you realize that relationships within the body run everything.

Once we have cells that can communicate, we have cells that know where they are, that can be called upon to make stuff, and that can become certain types of cells.

Safely lodged in the uterus, the ever-dividing cells can turn to the work of organizing themselves, laying out the basic plan of the body, and slowly and gently, beginning the process of differentiation that will give rise to bones and ears and knuckles.

Pregnancy timeline: One to three days after conception

4 Aug

During the first days of pregnancy, cells divide to create duplicates of the original, fertilized egg. As genes become activated, the cells begin to communicate by sending and receiving chemical signals.

Compared to cells that will later allow baby to babble and barf, the first, original cell doesn’t have much to do. Before fertilization, the egg doesn’t need a lot of protein channels, or windows and doors through which it could “chat” with its neighbors. It has only to look for one thing in its environment: The wiggly-tailed sperm. It is set up with the chemical matrix to sense sperm, to help that first wiggler to traverse into its nucleus, and to create a barrier to deflect also-rans in the sperm race.

About a day after conception, the egg divides for the first time, making an exact copy of itself.

Only now that the egg is fertilized and is making its way down the fallopian tube will it develop the chemical recognizers it will need at the end of the week to lodge into the warm wall of the uterus. Creating them any sooner would be a waste of molecular time and energy, like putting wheels on a car that might never be driven.

Making their way womb-ward, the cells that began with the egg divide every 15 hours or so. Two days after fertilization, 2 cells become 4. On day 3, 4 cells become 8.

At about the 8-cell stage, the machinery within each cell starts to click into gear and turn on. The cells have not differentiated into distinct types like eye cells or liver cells; they are at this stage still “totipotent,” or capable of becoming any type of body cell.

But now, in addition to replicating their chromosomes in order to duplicate, they begin to activate genes to create little protein machines or structural scaffolding for the cells. And they begin to produce chemicals that are communicators and recognizers– transmitters and receivers of molecular messages.

Communication between little cells will drive the development of the embryo as a whole.

Lady Gaga Revisited: How one cell becomes an entire person

3 Aug

DISCLAIMER: This latest entry has not yet been rubber stamped by the White Coats who check this blog for scientific accuracy. Corrections to lies below will come soon.  Reader comments, questions and corrections are welcome.

Months ago we began this blog by introducing a puzzle:

As if by wizardry, Lady Gaga arose from a single cell that was smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.  This ought to strike us as incredible, not only because Lada Gaga is composed of trillions of cells, but because her cells have various features and functions, so that her eye balls are distinct from her tuchus.  And yet the cells in her body, whether they make up her liver, legs or lashes, all contain the exact same DNA.

If somehow Lady Gaga had only type of cell—that is, she had grown to full size with cells that never “differentiated,” – we postulate that she would look something like the Fruit of the Loom grape man.

That is to say, she would be a blown up version of the blob she was when she was about 32-cells big, making her way toward her mother’s uterus by way of the fallopian tube.  The sac of cells at this stage is called the morula, latin for mulberry, because it looks like a cluster of seeds.

So why isn’t Lady Gaga a grape man?
Read the answer