Gametes are the reproductive cells that combine to form offspring. Organs called gonads produce the gametes, along with the hormones that regulate human reproduction. The male gametes are called sperm. Spermatogenesis, the production of sperm, occurs within the seminiferous tubules that make up most of the testis. The scrotum is the muscular sac that holds the testes outside of the body cavity.
Spermatogenesis begins with mitotic division of spermatogonia (stem cells) to produce primary spermatocytes that undergo the two divisions of meiosis to become secondary spermatocytes, then the haploid spermatids. During spermiogenesis, spermatids are transformed into spermatozoa (formed sperm). Upon release from the seminiferous tubules, sperm are moved to the epididymis where they continue to mature. During ejaculation, sperm exit the epididymis through the ductus deferens, a duct in the spermatic cord that leaves the scrotum. The ampulla of the ductus deferens meets the seminal vesicle, a gland that contributes fructose and proteins, at the ejaculatory duct. The fluid continues through the prostatic urethra, where secretions from the prostate are added to form semen. These secretions help the sperm to travel through the urethra and into the female reproductive tract. Secretions from the bulbourethral glands protect sperm and cleanse and lubricate the penile (spongy) urethra.
The penis is the male organ of copulation. Columns of erectile tissue called the corpora cavernosa and corpus spongiosum fill with blood when sexual arousal activates vasodilatation in the blood vessels of the penis. Testosterone regulates and maintains the sex organs and sex drive, and induces the physical changes of puberty. Interplay between the testes and the endocrine system precisely control the production of testosterone with a negative feedback loop.
The external female genitalia are collectively called the vulva. The vagina is the pathway into and out of the uterus. The penis is inserted into the vagina to deliver sperm, and the baby exits the uterus through the vagina during childbirth.
The ovaries produce oocytes, the female gametes, in a process called oogenesis. As with spermatogenesis, meiosis produces the haploid gamete (in this case, an ovum); however, it is completed only in an oocyte that has been penetrated by a sperm. In the ovary, an oocyte surrounded by supporting cells is called a follicle. In folliculogenesis, primordial follicles develop into primary, secondary, and tertiary follicles. Early tertiary follicles with their fluid-filled antrum will be stimulated by an increase in FSH, a gonadotropin produced by the anterior pituitary, to grow in the 28-day ovarian cycle. Supporting granulosa and theca cells in the growing follicles produce estrogens, until the level of estrogen in the bloodstream is high enough that it triggers negative feedback at the hypothalamus and pituitary. This results in a reduction of FSH and LH, and most tertiary follicles in the ovary undergo atresia (they die). One follicle, usually the one with the most FSH receptors, survives this period and is now called the dominant follicle. The dominant follicle produces more estrogen, triggering positive feedback and the LH surge that will induce ovulation. Following ovulation, the granulosa cells of the empty follicle luteinize and transform into the progesterone-producing corpus luteum. The ovulated oocyte with its surrounding granulosa cells is picked up by the infundibulum of the uterine tube, and beating cilia help to transport it through the tube toward the uterus. Fertilization occurs within the uterine tube, and the final stage of meiosis is completed.
The uterus has three regions: the fundus, the body, and the cervix. It has three layers: the outer perimetrium, the muscular myometrium, and the inner endometrium. The endometrium responds to estrogen released by the follicles during the menstrual cycle and grows thicker with an increase in blood vessels in preparation for pregnancy. If the egg is not fertilized, no signal is sent to extend the life of the corpus luteum, and it degrades, stopping progesterone production. This decline in progesterone results in the sloughing of the inner portion of the endometrium in a process called menses, or menstruation.
The breasts are accessory organs that may be utilized after the birth of a child to produce milk in a process called lactation. Birth control pills provide constant levels of estrogen and progesterone to negatively feed back on the hypothalamus and pituitary, and suppress the release of FSH and LH, which inhibits ovulation and prevents pregnancy.
The reproductive systems of males and females begin to develop soon after conception. A gene on the Y chromosome called SRY is critical in stimulating a cascade of events that simultaneously stimulate testis development and repress the development of female structures. Testosterone produced by Leydig cells in the embryonic testis stimulates the development of male sexual organs. If testosterone is not present, female sexual organs will develop.
Whereas the gonads and some other reproductive tissues are considered bipotential, the tissue that forms the internal reproductive structures stems from ducts that will develop into only male (Wolffian) or female (Müllerian) structures. To be able to reproduce as an adult, one of these systems must develop properly and the other must degrade.
Further development of the reproductive systems occurs at puberty. The initiation of the changes that occur in puberty is the result of a decrease in sensitivity to negative feedback in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland, and an increase in sensitivity of the gonads to FSH and LH stimulation. These changes lead to increases in either estrogen or testosterone. The increase in sex steroid hormones leads to maturation of the gonads and other reproductive organs. The initiation of spermatogenesis begins, as well as ovulation and menstruation. Increases in sex steroid hormones also lead to the development of secondary sex characteristics.