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In embryology, cleavage is the division of cells in the early embryo. The process follows fertilization, with the transfer being triggered by the activation of a cyclin-dependent kinase complex.[1] The zygotes of many species undergo rapid cell cycles with no significant overall growth, producing a cluster of cells the same size as the original zygote. The different cells derived from cleavage are called blastomeres and form a compact mass called the morula. Cleavage ends with the formation of the blastula.

Depending mostly on the amount of yolk in the egg, the cleavage can be holoblastic (total or entire cleavage) or meroblastic (partial cleavage). The pole of the egg with the highest concentration of yolk is referred to as the vegetal pole while the opposite is referred to as the animal pole.

Cleavage differs from other forms of cell division in that it increases the number of cells and nuclear mass without increasing the cytoplasmic mass. This means that with each successive subdivision, there is roughly half the cytoplasm in each daughter cell than before that division, and thus the ratio of nuclear to cytoplasmic material increases.[2]


The rapid cell cycles are facilitated by maintaining high levels of proteins that control cell cycle progression such as the cyclins and their associated cyclin-dependent kinases (cdk). The complex Cyclin B/CDK1 a.k.a. MPF (maturation promoting factor) promotes entry into mitosis.

The processes of karyokinesis (mitosis) and cytokinesis work together to result in cleavage. The mitotic apparatus is made up of a central spindle and polar asters made up of polymers of tubulin protein called microtubules. The asters are nucleated by centrosomes and the centrosomes are organized by centrioles brought into the egg by the sperm as basal bodies. Cytokinesis is mediated by the contractile ring made up of polymers of actin protein called microfilaments. Karyokinesis and cytokinesis are independent but spatially and temporally coordinated processes. While mitosis can occur in the absence of cytokinesis, cytokinesis requires the mitotic apparatus.

The end of cleavage coincides with the beginning of zygotic transcription. This point is referred to as the midblastula transition and appears to be controlled by the nuclear:cytoplasmic ratio (about 1/6).

Types of cleavage

Determinate cleavage (also called mosaic cleavage) is in most protostomes. It results in the developmental fate of the cells being set early in the embryo development. Each blastomere produced by early embryonic cleavage does not have the capacity to develop into a complete embryo.

A cell can only be indeterminate (also called regulative) if it has a complete set of undisturbed animal/vegetal cytoarchitectural features. It is characteristic of deuterostomes – when the original cell in a deuterostome embryo divides, the two resulting cells can be separated, and each one can individually develop into a whole organism.

In the absence of a large concentration of yolk, four major cleavage types can be observed in isolecithal cells (cells with a small even distribution of yolk) or in mesolecithal cells or microlecithal cells (moderate amount of yolk in a gradient) – bilateral holoblastic, radial holoblastic, rotational holoblastic, and spiral holoblastic, cleavage.[3] These holoblastic cleavage planes pass all the way through isolecithal zygotes during the process of cytokinesis. Coeloblastula is the next stage of development for eggs that undergo these radial cleavaging. In holoblastic eggs, the first cleavage always occurs along the vegetal-animal axis of the egg, the second cleavage is perpendicular to the first. From here, the spatial arrangement of blastomeres can follow various patterns, due to different planes of cleavage, in various organisms.

  • Bilateral
  • Radial
  • Rotational
  • Spiral

In the presence of a large amount of yolk in the fertilized egg cell, the cell can undergo partial, or meroblastic, cleavage. Two major types of meroblastic cleavage are discoidal and superficial.[10]

  • Discoidal
  • Superficial


Differences exist between the cleavage in placental mammals and the cleavage in other animals.

Mammals have a slow rate of division that is between 12 and 24 hours. These cellular divisions are asynchronous. Zygotic transcription starts at the two-, four-, or eight-cell stage. Cleavage is holoblastic and rotational.

At the eight-cell stage, having undergone three cleavages the embryo goes through some changes. At this stage the cells begin to tightly adhere in a process known as compaction.[14][15]. Recently, it has been proposed that in placental mammals the cells become more likely to contribute to one of the first two cell types to arise, the inner cell mass or trophectoderm, depending on their position within the compacted embryo. A single cell can be removed from a pre-compaction eight- cell embryo and used for genetic testing and the embryo will recover.[16]

Most of the blastomeres in this stage become polarized and develop tight junctions with the other blastomeres. This process leads to the development of two different populations of cells: Polar cells on the outside and apolar cells on the inside. The outer cells, called the trophoblast cells, pump sodium in from the outside, which automatically brings water in with it to the basal (inner) surface to form a blastocoel cavity in a process called cavitation. The trophoblast cells will eventually give rise to the embryonic contribution to the placenta called the chorion. The inner cells are pushed to one side of the cavity (because the embryo isn't getting any bigger) to form the inner cell mass (ICM) and will give rise to the embryo and some extraembryonic membranes. At this stage, the embryo is called a blastocyst.

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