What is a Morula?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A morula is one of the earliest stages in embryonic development, occurring before the embryo has implanted but after it is fertilized. This stage is usually reached at about four to five days after fertilization, and it is followed by the development of the blastula, a cluster of cells surrounding a fluid-filled cavity. The morula is an important state of development, and it can be easily identified on a high power microscope used to monitor embryonic development.

A morula occurs before the embryo has implanted but after it is fertilized.
A morula occurs before the embryo has implanted but after it is fertilized.

Embryonic development starts with fertilization to create a zygote. The zygote starts to replicate and divide, still staying within the confines of the zona pellucida, the membrane that surrounds the outside of the egg. When around 12 to 30 cells have developed, the growing embryo becomes a morula. The cells have a slightly blurred appearance and look as though they are running together. They are also very small, because they are still inside the zona pellucida. Thus the number of cells increases, but the overall size stays the same.

A zygote replicates and divides to form a morula.
A zygote replicates and divides to form a morula.

Once at the morula stage, the cells begin to differentiate and arrange themselves into the blastula shape. This also marks the beginning of the disintegration of the zona pellucida, allowing the embryo to grow and implant, connecting the embryo with the uterine wall so that the placenta can develop. These are all critical landmarks in embryonic development and each landmark also represents a stage where development can go wrong or stop, sometimes with no apparent cause.

Viewed under magnification, this tight ball of cells resembles the fruit of the mulberry tree. This is referenced in the name "morula," Latin for "mulberry." The number of cells involved can change because, as the cells start dividing, they can divide at different rates. Developing embryos do not follow an exponential progression of two, four, eight, 16, and 32 cells, in other words; at any given time the number of cells in the embryo can vary.

When people are treated with in vitro fertilization for infertility problems, physicians aim to transfer the embryos after the morula stage so that they can implant inside the uterus. If the developing embryo is still a morula after five days, this raises concerns that it may not develop any further and is no longer viable, although it may be perfectly healthy and just a little slower than usual. Some physicians like to wait to transfer until they are confident that cell division and development are still occurring, while others may go ahead and transfer a morula.

A few days after conception, an embryo reaches the uterus, where it implants itself in the lining of the uterus.
A few days after conception, an embryo reaches the uterus, where it implants itself in the lining of the uterus.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

SailorJerry

@ElizaBennett - My understanding is that identical twin formation would happen at the blastocyst stage. Some researchers who study embryonic stem cells, therapeutic cloning, and that sort of thing are comfortable with working with embryos at the blastocyst stage precisely because it's still so uncommitted. It could become two people, it has no top or bottom, etc.

But the next stage, the gastrula, is after primitive streak formation (which will eventually become the backbone). Then you can definitely have only one individual and it is starting to develop its form. Although this is still a super-early stage when a lot can still go wrong.

ElizaBennett

Can a morula still divide in two and become identical twins? Can a blastocyst? I know this is a stage when no test that exists could tell if you're pregnant, because your body doesn't even know until implantation I don't think.

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