What is In Vitro Fertilization and How Does It Work?

Instructor: Dominic Corsini
This lesson introduces the concept of fertilization, and then uses that background information to explain the details behind in vitro fertilization (or IVF). A summary and brief quiz are included at the lesson's conclusion.

Overview of Fertilization

Most people are familiar with the concept of fertilization: the idea that sperm cells join egg cells to produce zygotes, otherwise known as fertilized eggs. However, what people might be less familiar with is how normal fertilization differs from in vitro fertilization (IVF). Each of these processes can produce a healthy individual, but they differ in form and complexity. For example, fertilization normally occurs when a sperm fuses with the mother's egg inside the uterus or fallopian tube. This is how most fertilized eggs are produced and chances are, it's how you were created; however, when people have difficulty conceiving a child naturally, they may choose to explore another method of fertilization such as IVF.

In Vitro Fertilization

The primary difference between IVF and natural fertilization is that IVF involves removing sperm and eggs from the parents' bodies for fertilization outside the body. The sperm is used to fertilize an egg under controlled conditions within a laboratory setting. If successful, the fertilized egg (zygote) further develops into an embryo, and then is implanted back into the mother's uterus to undergo an otherwise normal development process. While this method of fertilization seems simple, it is actually very complicated.

The initial step of in vitro fertilization involves the woman taking hormone supplements that stimulate her ovaries to release multiple eggs, rather than the typical one egg per month. If the stimulation is successful, these eggs are then carefully harvested. The timing of this harvest is critical; too early or too late a harvest, and the eggs may not develop properly.

To harvest eggs, doctors use a hollow needle to collect the eggs directly from the ovarian follicles. During the procedure, many women will receive pain medication, be mildly sedated, or undergo full anesthesia. Upon retrieval, the eggs are mixed with the father's sperm and fertilization is allowed to occur. Then, under clinical supervision, the fertilized eggs are allowed to develop for several days.

Developing Embryo
Developing Embryo

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