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The Female Reproductive System: Functions & Parts

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  • 0:00 The Female Reproductive Tract
  • 0:35 Ovaries & Uterine Tubes
  • 2:09 Uterus
  • 3:33 Cervix & Vaginal Canal
  • 3:52 External Female Structures
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Heather Adewale

Heather has taught reproductive biology and has researched neuro, repro and endocrinology. She has a PhD in Zoology/Biology.

You know the saying. . . men are from Mars, women are from Venus. We all know that men and women think differently, and we all know that we look different on the outside, but do you know what we look like on the inside?

The Female Reproductive Tract

The extent of your familiarity with the female reproductive tract may have to do with which sex you are. Do you know what the female reproductive system looks like on the inside? Learning the basics of female anatomy is essential to understanding how the female menstrual cycle works, how birth control works and of course, pregnancy.

Think of the female reproductive tract as a journey the egg takes - this microscopic cell that has the potential to become a fully developed newborn child. All of the structures in the female reproductive tract are there to help this egg mature, travel and/or develop.

Ovaries and Uterine Tubes

It all begins with the ovaries. The ovaries are a paired structure that house eggs. There is one on either side of the larger structure in the middle called the uterus. Inside each ovary are thousands of potential eggs or oocytes. These tiny cells are paused in an early stage of cell reproduction. Each month a group of them are recruited and chosen to be matured, but of this group only one lucky egg will reach full maturation. Hormones from the female's brain and the egg itself will help the immature egg grow and develop. Once ready, the ovary sends a signal to the brain, telling it that the egg is ready to be released. Where you ask? Well that is the second step of our journey.

Cross section of an ovary
Cross section of an ovary

In the above cross section of an ovary, you see the phases of egg development. To the far left are immature eggs. As you move across the top to the right egg, maturation occurs. The mature egg is being released on the bottom right of the ovary. This image depicts all stages of egg development occurring at once; however, in a normal functioning ovary, the steps of egg development occur sequentially.

Next to each ovary there is a uterine tube. This tube is filled with tiny little hairs called cilia. Once the mature egg is released from the ovary, it enters the uterine tube and the cilia push the egg down the tube towards the uterus. You can think of the ovary as the egg's home and the uterine tubes as the highway to the egg's final destination. Along the way, the egg may or may not meet up with sperm from the male. If the egg does meet up with sperm, the egg and sperm with fuse together and continue traveling to the final destination, the uterus.

Uterus

If the ovary is the home of the egg, the uterus can be thought of as the home of a developing fetus. Remember that egg that fused with the sperm? Well that allowed the DNA of the mom to combine with the DNA of the dad, creating a fertilized egg, now called a zygote, that has the potential to grow into a fetus. But that zygote needs somewhere to grow and develop. That's what the uterus is for. Once the zygote reaches the uterus, it implants itself into the inner lining of the uterus.

Let's take a more in depth look at the uterus. The uterus is a large muscular structure with three layers. The outmost layer covers the uterus and helps it attach to the body. This is called the perimetrium. The middle layer is the myometrium. This layer is the muscular layer of the uterus. This is the layer that causes the contractions a women feels during labor. And the innermost layer is called the endometrium. Now the endometrium is a little more complicated than the other two layers, because it actually grows and sheds its tissue each month. During the month, the endometrium builds up in preparation for a potential egg to implant. If the egg doesn't implant, then the tissue sheds and is built up again the next month. This is what we call menstruation, or a woman's period.

So, why wouldn't an egg implant? Well, if the egg never meets up with that sperm, then it doesn't get fertilized. Unfertilized eggs degenerate and are shed with the endometrium during menstruation.

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