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Structure and Function of the Female Reproductive System

The female reproductive system is composed of the primary sex organs, the ovaries, and a variety of other important organs that function in the transport of egg cells and the maintenance of the life of the developing fetus (see Figures 18.3 and 18.4). The ovaries play the major role of producing and releasing functional egg cells, and also secrete the major female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone. The uterus provides a suitable environment for the development of a new organism. 
  • Ovaries: The ovaries, located in the abdominal cavity, are the primary sex organs in females. Cells called primary oocytes will eventually give rise to mature haploid egg cells through meiosis, similar to sperm production in males. Unlike sperm production, however, all of the primary oocytes a female will ever produce are formed by birth, and all are arrested in prophase of meiosis I. They are surrounded by a structure called the ovarian follicle, whose cells provide nutrition for the developing egg. At the onset of puberty, a follicle ruptures and an oocyte is released approximately once every 28 days in a process called ovulation; the first meiotic division is completed just before the oocyte is released. Meiosis II will only take place if the egg is fertilized. Females stop releasing eggs at menopause, which normally occurs at around age 50.  
  • Oviducts: After ovulation, the newly released oocyte is swept into a tube called the oviduct or Fallopian tubes, located near the ovary. The egg travels through the oviduct towards the uterus due to smooth muscle contractions. If fertilization occurs, it must happen in the oviduct; whether or not it becomes fertilized, the egg will eventually reach the uterus.
  • Uterus: A fertilized egg begins dividing during its journey and will implant itself into the uterine wall (called the endometrium). Here it will continue to develop and grow, the details of which will be discussed later. If the egg has not been fertilized, it will eventually be expelled from the uterus with most of the uterine lining during menstruation.
  • Vagina: The vagina is a muscular tube which connects the uterus to the external environment. It therefore serves a dual function: it is the female organ of sexual intercourse, which allows the penis to enter and deposit sperm, and it also functions as the birth canal, through which the fetus will emerge when it is born. The cervix is the muscle surrounding the opening of the uterus into the vagina.

The female reproductive system

The female repoductive system (internal view)

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