ovum, in biology, specialized plant or animal sex cell, also called the egg, or egg cell. It is the female sex cell, or female gamete; the male gamete is the sperm. The study of the ovum is included in the science of embryology. The development of a new individual from an unfertilized ovum is called parthenogenesis.

In higher animals the ovum differs from the sperm in that it is larger and is nonmotile, a smooth sphere or oval lacking the flagellum of the sperm. Like that of the sperm, its nucleus contains the chromosomes, which bear the hereditary material of the parent. A gamete, ovum or sperm, contains half the number of chromosomes found in the body cells of the parent, i.e., the gamete is haploid. In animals, ova contain stored food called the yolk, the amount of which varies in different species, depending on the length of time required for the embryo to become self-sufficient in obtaining nourishment outside the egg.

The term ovum is usually restricted to the single female sex cell, but the term egg, in its common use to indicate a bird's egg, refers to a more complex structure, only part of which is produced in the ovary of the bird. The ovum of such an egg is a cell swollen with yolk material. The rest of the egg—e.g., the jelly mass surrounding amphibian eggs, and the shell, membranes, and egg white, or albumen, of bird eggs—is not cellular and is secreted around the ovum as it passes down the oviduct.

Animal Ova


Ova are produced in the ovary of the female; they are formed from reproductive cells (called primordial germ cells) in a process called oogenesis. In this maturation process a germ cell builds up its food supply and then undergoes a series of cell divisions (called meiosis), by which the number of chromosomes in the mature ovum is reduced by half. In oogenesis in animals only one of the four cells formed by meiotic division is functional. In this ovum all the yolk from the original cell is collected; the three other, yolkless, cells are called polar bodies and never develop further. Maturation also occurs in the formation of sperm (spermatogenesis), but in spermatogenesis, in contrast to oogenesis, all four of the cells formed by meiotic division are functional.

Fertilization and Maturation

The union of mature sperm and ovum, each bearing half the normal number of chromosomes, results in a single cell (the zygote) with a full number of chromosomes. The zygote undergoes a series of cell divisions (see mitosis) producing a multicellular embryo and finally a mature individual. In all sexually reproducing animals the production and maturation of the ovum, its fertilization, and its early embryonic development are essentially identical.

Plant Ova

In plants that reproduce sexually the pattern is similar to that of animals. In the mosses and ferns, however, the egg cells are formed in special organs called archegonia and are fertilized by sperm that are commonly flagellated and motile like those of animals. In flowering plants the ovary is situated in the base of the pistil of the flower. After fertilization by a sperm contained in a pollen grain, the zygote develops into the embryo, contained in the seed.

An ovum (plural ova) is a haploid female reproductive cell or gamete. The word is derived from Latin, meaning egg or egg cell. Both animals and embryophytes have ova. The term ovule is used for the young ovum of an animal, as well as the plant structure that carries the female gametophyte and egg cell and develops into a seed after fertilization. In lower plants and algae, the ovum is also often called oosphere.

Ova production

In higher animals, ova are produced by female gonads (sexual glands) called ovaries and all of them are present at birth in mammals, and mature via oogenesis.

Human and mammal ova

In the viviparous animals (which include humans and all other placental mammals), the ovum is fertilized inside the female body, and the embryo then develops inside the uterus, receiving nutrition directly from the mother.

The ovum is the largest cell in the human body, typically visible to the naked eye without the aid of a microscope or other magnification device. The human ovum measures between 100 and 200 µm in diameter.

Protist and plant ova

In protists, fungi and many plants, such as bryophytes, ferns, and gymnosperms, ova are produced inside archegonia. Since the archegonium is a haploid structure, egg cells are produced via mitosis. The typical bryophyte archegonium consists of a long neck with a wider base containing the egg cell. Upon maturation, the neck opens to allow sperm cells to swim into the archegonium and fertilize the egg. The resulting zygote then gives rise to an embryo, which will grow out of the archegonium as a sporeling (young sporophyte).

In the flowering plants, the female gametophyte, which usually gives rise to the archegonium, has been reduced to just eight cells referred to as the embryo sac inside the ovule. The gametophyte cell closest to the micropyle opening of the embryo sac develops into the egg cell. Upon pollination, a pollen tube delivers sperm into the embryo sac and one sperm nucleus fuses with the egg nucleus. The resulting zygote develops into an embryo inside the ovule. The ovule in turn develops into a seed and in many cases the plant ovary develops into a fruit to facilitate the dispersal of the seeds. Upon germination, the embryo grows into a seedling.

Ova development in oviparous animals

In the oviparous animals (all birds, most fishes, amphibians and reptiles) the ova develop protective layers and pass through the oviduct to the outside of the body. They are fertilized by male sperm either inside the female body (as in birds), or outside (as in many fishes). After fertilization, an embryo develops, nourished by nutrients contained in the egg. It then hatches from the egg, outside the mother's body. See egg (biology) for a discussion of eggs of oviparous animals.

The egg cell's cytoplasm and mitochondria (and chloroplasts in plants) are the sole means of the egg being able to reproduce by mitosis and eventually form a blastocyst after fertilization.


There is an intermediate form, the ovoviviparous animals: the embryo develops within and is nourished by an egg as in the oviparous case, but then it hatches inside the mother's body shortly before birth, or just after the egg leaves the mother's body. Some fish, reptiles and many invertebrates use this technique.

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