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ovum

Introduction

ovum (ōˈvəm) [key], 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.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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