Tagged: progesterone

3.8 Female Reproductive System: A* understanding for iGCSE Biology

The human male and female reproductive systems are made from the same embryonic cells and are perhaps more similar in structure and function than is first apparent.  There are two ovaries protected within the pelvic cavity.  The ovary is the site of egg cell production.  The egg cell is the female gamete and is haploid – it has only one chromosome from each homologous pair.  The ovaries are also endocrine organs that produce the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone.

[Indeed differences between the gametes is the essential difference between male and female organisms.  Females are always individuals who produce a small number of large, often immobile gametes.  You can easily remember this: female – few, fixed, fat.  Males are organisms that produce large numbers of small, motile games. Male – many, mini, motile.]


This diagram shows the human egg cell after it has been released from the ovary into the Fallopian tubes (or oviduct). The egg cell is coloured pink in the diagram above (if you are being picky it is not really an egg but a cell called a secondary oocyte but I won’t stress over this now…)  The egg cell is surrounded by a thick jelly-like layer called the zona pellucida and then by a whole cluster of mother’s cells from her ovary – the corona radiata.  The big idea to remember is that the egg cell is very large compared to sperm cells:  it is one of the largest cells in humans with a diameter of about 500 micrometers.

The Fallopian tubes carry the egg down towards the uterus.  The lining of the Fallopian tubes is covered in a ciliated epithelium.  The cilia waft to generate a current that helps move the egg down towards the uterus.  Sperm cells have to swim against this current to reach the egg in the tubes.  The Fallopian tube is the usual site for fertilisation to occur.


Once fertilisation has occurred, the newly formed zygote divides over and over again by mitosis to form a ball of cells called an embryo.  The embryo continues its journey down the Fallopian tube until it reaches the uterus.  The uterus (womb) is a muscular organ with a thickened and blood-rich lining called the endometrium.  Implantation occurs when the embryo attaches to the endometrium and over time, a placenta forms.  The embryo develops into a foetus and remains in the uterus for 9 months.

The cervix is a narrow opening between the uterus and the vagina.  It holds the developing foetus in the uterus during pregnancy but dilates (widens) at birth to form part of the birth canal.  The vagina is the organ into which sperm are deposited from the man’s penis during sexual intercourse.  The lining of the vagina is acidic to protect against bacterial pathogens and the sperm cells released into the vagina quickly start to swim away from the acidity in grooves in the lining.  These grooves lead to the cervix and hence into the uterus.


Hormones A* understanding for iGCSE Biology 2.90 3.12 3.9

Hormones are defined as “chemicals produced in endocrine glands that are secreted into the bloodstream and cause an effect on target tissues elsewhere in the body”.  They play a wide variety of roles in the healthy functioning and development of the body.


The iGCSE specification only really mentions a small number of hormones so these are the ones I will focus on in this post.

ADH (anti-diuretic hormone)

ADH is secreted into the blood by an endocrine gland at the base of the brain called the Pituitary Gland.  The stimulus for the release of ADH into the blood comes from the hypothalamus (a region of brain right next to the pituitary gland) when it detects that the blood plasma is becoming too concentrated.  This might be caused by the body becoming dehydrated due to sweating.  ADH travels round the body in the blood until it reaches its target tissue which are the cells that line the collecting ducts in the nephrons in the kidney.  ADH increases the permeability of the connecting duct walls to water, thus meaning more water is reabsorbed by osmosis from the urine in the collecting duct and back into the blood.  This results in a small volume of concentrated urine being produced.


Adrenaline is secreted into the blood by the adrenal glands in situations of danger or stress..  The adrenals are found just above the two kidneys on the back of the body wall.  Adrenaline secretion is controlled by nerve cells that come from the central nervous system.  Adrenaline is often described as the “fight or flight” hormone as its effects are to prepare the body to defend itself or run away from danger.  There are receptors for adrenaline in many target tissues in the body but some of the most significant effects of adrenaline are:

  • affects the pacemaker cells in the heart causing an increase in heart rate
  • shifts the pattern of blood flow into muscles, skin and away from the intestines and other internal organs
  • decreases peristalsis in the gut
  • causes pupils to dilate in the eye
  • increases breathing rate in the lungs
  • promotes the passing of urine from the bladder


Insulin is a hormone made in the islets of Langerhans in the pancreas.  It plays a vital role in the homeostatic control of the blood sugar concentration.  The pancreas will secrete insulin into the blood when the blood glucose concentration gets too high. There are many cells in the body with insulin receptors but the main target tissue for insulin is the liver.

Insulin causes the liver (and muscle) cells to take glucose out of the blood and convert it into the storage polysaccharide glycogen. This results in a lowering of the blood glucose concentration: a good example of the importance of the principle of negative feedback in homeostasis


Testosterone is a steroid hormone made by cells in the testes of males. It is the main hormone of puberty in males resulting in the growth of the reproductive organs at puberty as well as the secondary sexual characteristics (pitch of voice lowering, muscle growth stimulated, body hair grows etc.)


Oestrogen is a steroid hormone made by the cells in the ovary that surround the developing egg cell in the first half of the menstrual cycle.  In puberty it causes the development of the female secondary sexual characteristics (breast growth, change in body shape, pubic hair etc.) but in the menstrual cycle, oestrogen has a variety of important effects.  It stimulates the rebuilding of the uterine endometrium (or lining) to prepare the uterus for the implantation of an embryo.  Oestrogen also affects the pituitary gland and can cause the spike in LH concentrations that trigger ovulation on day 14 of the cycle.


Progesterone is also made in the ovary but at a different time in the menstrual cycle.  It is secreted by cells in the corpus luteum, a structure found from day 14 onwards after the egg has been released in ovulation.  Progesterone has two main target tissues:  it maintains the thickened lining of the endometrium in the uterus ready for implantation.  Progesterone also causes the pituitary gland to stop secreting the hormones FSH and LH so a new cycle is never started.  It is for this reason that progesterone can be used in women as a contraceptive pill.