Among humans, the developing young is known as an embryo until eight weeks following conception, after which time it is described, until birth, as a fetus. In organisms that reproduce sexually, the union of the sperm with the ovum results in a zygote, or fertilized egg, which begins a rapid series of cell divisions called cleavage, or segmentation (see mitosis). Each kind of organism has its own characteristic sequence of development, and related species usually have similar developmental patterns.
In a typical animal, cleavage proceeds in the following pattern. Early divisions produce a hollow ball one cell thick, called a blastula, which encloses the blastocoel, or cleavage cavity. The cells divide more rapidly in the area where the nucleus of the ovum was located; this results in an invagination (inpushing) of these cells to form a ball two cells thick (the gastrula). The new cavity thus formed is the gastrocoel, also known as the primitive gut or archenteron, and its opening is the blastopore. The outer layer of cells is called the ectoderm, the inner layer the endoderm. Among the coelenterates (e.g., sponges and jellyfish), these two layers become the chief functional tissues of the adult.
In higher forms of life, a third layer of cells, the mesoderm, develops from one or both of the first two layers and fills the blastocoel, and invagination forms a digestive tract with only a single opening at this early stage. The flatworms (e.g., the tapeworm and the fluke) stop developing at this time. In most organisms, however, a later invagination of the ectoderm results in a gut that is open at both ends. The mesoderm then divides into two layers, the space between them being called the coelom, or body cavity. The embryo now roughly resembles a tube within a tube.
From the three primary germ layers, the organs and tissues develop. In general the ectoderm gives rise to the skin, or integument, the skin appendages (e.g., scales, feathers, hair, and nails), and the nervous system. The endoderm forms the digestive glands, as well as the lining of the alimentary tract and lungs. From the mesoderm develop the major internal organs: the skeletal, muscular, and connective tissue and the circulatory, excretory, and reproductive systems. Sense organs and endocrine glands arise from combinations of all three layers.