Introductionembryo (ĕmˈbrēō) [key], name for the developing young of an animal or plant. In its widest definition, the embryo is the young from the moment of fertilization until it has become structurally complete and able to survive as a separate organism. Embryology, the scientific study of embryonic development, deals with the period from fertilization until the hatching or birth of an animal or the germination of a plant. However, since the young animal may undergo metamorphosis or may remain wholly dependent on the mother for some time after birth, and since the seedling derives nourishment from food stored in its fleshy cotyledons even after it has sprouted, the exact limit of the time during which an organism is an embryo has not generally been well defined.
Modern embryology, using the techniques of molecular biology, genetics, and other disciplines, has focused on the question of what makes the embryo differentiate (see differentiation), what genetically directed molecular signals tell a single cell to divide and follow the specific pattern of growth and specialization that results in a complex multicellular organism with species-specific and individual characteristics.
Karl Ernst von Baer, who developed the biogenetic law, is generally regarded as the founder of embryology. E. H. Haeckel's"ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" gave weight to the theory of evolution (see recapitulation). Other researchers in the field of embryology have included C. F. Wolff, M. J. Schleiden, and T. Schwann, developers of the cell theory; F. M. Balfour; H. Spemann; O. Hertwig; F. R. Lillie; and R. Levi-Montalcini.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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