Oogenesis occurs in the outermost layers of the ovaries. As with sperm production, oogenesis starts with a germ cell. In oogenesis, this germ cell is called an oogonium and forms during the embryological development of the individual. The oogonium undergoes mitosis to produce about one to two million oocytes by the time of birth.
The primary oocytes begin meiosis before birth (Figure 18.15). However, the meiotic division is arrested in its progress in the first prophase stage. At the time of birth, all future eggs are in prophase I. This situation is in contrast with the male reproductive system in which sperm are produced continuously throughout the life of the individual. Starting at adolescence, anterior pituitary hormones cause the development of a few follicles in an ovary each month. This results in a primary oocyte finishing the first meiotic division. The cell divides unequally, with most of the cytoplasm and organelles going to one cell, called a secondary oocyte, and only one set of chromosomes and a small amount of cytoplasm going to the other cell. This second cell is called a polar body and usually dies. Cell division is again arrested, this time at metaphase II. At ovulation, this secondary oocyte is released and travels toward the uterus through the oviduct. If the secondary oocyte is fertilized, the cell continues through meiosis II, producing a second polar body and haploid egg, which fuses with the haploid sperm to form a fertilized egg (zygote) containing all 46 chromosomes.