What happens to all the female germ cells?


Here’s a little semi-interactive drawing I put together that shows what happens to the germ cells over the course of a female’s life, from fetal life until menopause.

Scroll down to see how the number (and stage of development) of germ cells changes as a woman ages.

Pay particular attention to what happens during the ages in red ovals:
1. Hover over a red oval and see if you can answer the question that pops up.
2. Click the red oval to see the answer.

When you’re done, scroll way down to the bottom to check out the takeaway points.


What happens to all the follicles?

Click on the highlighted areas to find out more.

What happens to all the follicles?
What happens in utero? How many follicles are present in a newborn baby? What happens at puberty?

What happens in utero?

During fetal development, oogonia proliferate, reaching a maximum number of about 7 million.

They then undergo mitosis, becoming primary oocytes. A single layer of follicular cells surrounds each primary oocyte, forming a primordial follicle.

Primary oocytes begin meiosis 1, but they stop at prophase. Most will remain frozen in prophase forever! Only one primary oocyte each month is allowed to complete meiosis 1 and turn into a secondary oocyte.

How many follicles are present in a newborn baby?

Many of the primordial follicles formed during fetal life undergo atresia. By the time the baby is born, fewer than half of the original number of germ cells remain! Although nobody seems to agree on an exact number, a good rough estimate of the number of follicles remaining at birth is around one million per ovary.

Follicular atresia continues throughout life. By the time menopause rolls around, virtually no follicles remain.

What happens at puberty?

At puberty, menstruation begins. Every month, at the beginning of the menstrual cycle, a "team" of about 50 primordial follicles (containing primary oocytes still frozen in prophase of meiosis I) is chosen for maturation.

Although the primary oocytes themselves remain frozen in prophase I, their follicles undergo maturation, changing from primordial to primary to secondary to Graafian (mature) follicles.

Over time, the team members drop out (or undergo atresia). By the Graafian follicle stage, only one or two follicles remain. And only one Graafian follicle responds LH and undergoes ovulation. 

Just before ovulation, the primary oocyte in the Graafian follicle completes meiosis I, turning into a secondary oocyte. It then begins meiosis II, stopping at metaphase, where it will remain unless fertilization occurs (at which point it will complete meiosis II and become an ovum).

    Here are the main takeaway points.

    1. By the time baby is born, all her oogonia are gone!
    They’ve all transformed into primary oocytes (which are stuck in prophase I).

    2. Almost all of these primary oocytes will remain halted at prophase forever.
    Only a few (around 50) are selected for maturation at the beginning of each menstrual cycle.

    3. Most of the 50 primary oocytes selected each month end up dying – only one makes it to ovulation.
    All 50 primary oocytes in the chosen group start the process of follicular maturation – but along the way, most of them die. Only one actually makes it to the Graafian follicle stage. When LH surges, that lonely primary oocyte (in its Graafian follicle) completes meiosis I, and becomes a secondary oocyte, which is then ovulated.

    4. Every year, starting at birth, the population of primary oocytes dwindles.
    At birth, there are around 2 million primary oocytes – but by puberty, there are only around 400,000 left. At that point, a measly 50 primary oocytes are given a shot at maturation each month. The rest just sit there, wondering if they’ll be chosen next time. Meanwhile, they keep dying off – and by menopause, there are no primary oocytes left.