Mitosis is simply described as having four stages—prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase; the steps follow one another without interruption. The entire four-stage division process averages about one hour in duration, and the period between cell divisions, called interphase or interkinesis, varies greatly but is considerably longer.
During interphase the chromosomes are dispersed in the nucleus and appear as a network of long, thin threads or filaments, called the chromatin. At some point before prophase begins, the chromosomes replicate themselves to form pairs of identical sister chromosomes, or chromatids; the deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA) of the chromosomes is synthesized only during interphase, not while mitosis is in process.
During prophase the two chromatids remain attached to one another at a region called the centromere, but each contracts into a compact tightly coiled body; the nucleolus and, in most cases, the nuclear envelope break down and disappear. Also during prophase the spindle begins to form. In animal cells the centrioles separate and move apart, and radiating bundles of fibers, called asters, appear around them. Some sets of fiber run from one centriole to the other; these are the spindle fibers. In plant cells the spindle forms without centrioles.
During metaphase the chromosomes congregate at a plane midway between the two ends to which the spindle tapers. This is called the equatorial plane and marks the point where the whole cell will divide when nuclear division is completed; the ends of the spindle are the poles to which the chromatids will migrate. The chromatids are attached to the spindle fibers at the centromeres.
During anaphase the two chromatids of each chromosome separate and move to opposite poles, as if pulled along the spindle fibers by the centromeres. During telophase new nuclear envelopes form around the two groups of daughter chromosomes (as they are now called), the new nucleoli begin to appear, and eventually, as the formation of the two daughter nuclei is completed, the spindle fibers disappear. The chromosomes uncoil to assume their dispersed distribution within the interphased nucleus. Cytokinesis, which may begin before or after mitosis is completed, finally separates the daughter nuclei into two new individual daughter cells.
A considerable variance in the degree and timing of these stages exists across species, and cells can be classified by their mitotic characteristics. Despite the relative ease of observation of the physical stages of mitosis under the microscope (primarily because the chromosomes stain readily when in their coiled state), the exact chemical and kinetic nature of mitosis is not yet fully understood. For instance, the spindle has been determined to consist largely of thin, elongate tubules called microtubules, but their functions have yet to be understood.