In biology, sexual reproduction is a process of combining and mixing genetic traits, often resulting in the specialization of organisms into a male or female variety, each known as a sex. Sexual reproduction involves combining specialized cells (gametes) to form offspring that inherit traits from both parents. Gametes can be identical in form and function (known as isogametes), but in many cases an asymmetry has evolved such that two sex-specific types of gametes (heterogametes) exist: male gametes are small, motile, and optimized to transport their genetic information over a distance, while female gametes are large, non-motile and contain the nutrients necessary for the early development of the young organism.
An organism’s sex is defined by the gametes it produces: males produce male gametes (spermatozoa, or sperm) while females produce female gametes (ova, or egg cells); individual organisms which produce both male and female gametes are termed hermaphroditic. Frequently, physical differences are associated with the different sexes of an organism; these sexual dimorphisms can reflect the different reproductive pressures the sexes experience.
Sexual reproduction in eukaryotes is a process whereby organisms form offspring that combine genetic traits from both parents. Chromosomes are passed on from one generation to the next in this process. Each cell in the offspring has half the chromosomes of the mother and half of the father. Genetic traits are contained within the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of chromosomes – by combining one of each type of chromosomes from each parent, an organism is formed containing a doubled set of chromosomes. This double-chromosome stage is called “diploid”, while the single-chromosome stage is “haploid”. Diploid organisms can, in turn, form haploid cells (gametes) that randomly contain one of each of the chromosome pairs, via meiosis. Meiosis also involves a stage of chromosomal crossover, in which regions of DNA are exchanged between matched types of chromosomes, to form a new pair of mixed chromosomes. Crossing over and fertilization (the recombining of single sets of chromosomes to make a new diploid) result in the new organism containing a different set of genetic traits from either parent.
In many organisms, the haploid stage has been reduced to just gametes specialized to recombine and form a new diploid organism; in others, the gametes are capable of undergoing cell division to produce multicellular haploid organisms. In either case, gametes may be externally similar, particularly in size (isogamy), or may have evolved an asymmetry such that the gametes are different in size and other aspects (anisogamy). By convention, the larger gamete (called an ovum, or egg cell) is considered female, while the smaller gamete (called a spermatozoon, or sperm cell) is considered male. An individual that produces exclusively large gametes is female, and one that produces exclusively small gametes is male. An individual that produces both types of gametes is a hermaphrodite; in some cases hermaphrodites are able to self-fertilize and produce offspring on their own, without a second organism.
Most sexually reproducing animals spend their lives as diploid organisms, with the haploid stage reduced to single cell gametes. The gametes of animals have male and female forms—spermatozoa and egg cells. These gametes combine to form embryos which develop into a new organism.
The male gamete, a spermatozoon (produced within a testicle), is a small cell containing a single long flagellum which propels it. Spermatozoa are extremely reduced cells, lacking many cellular components that would be necessary for embryonic development. They are specialized for motility, seeking out an egg cell and fusing with it in a process called fertilization.
Female gametes are egg cells (produced within ovaries), large immobile cells that contain the nutrients and cellular components necessary for a developing embryo. Egg cells are often associated with other cells which support the development of the embryo, forming an egg. In mammals, the fertilized embryo instead develops within the female, receiving nutrition directly from its mother.
Animals are usually mobile and seek out a partner of the opposite sex for mating. Animals which live in the water can mate using external fertilization, where the eggs and sperm are released into and combine within the surrounding water. Most animals that live outside of water, however, must transfer sperm from male to female to achieve internal fertilization.
In most birds, both excretion and reproduction is done through a single posterior opening, called the cloaca—male and female birds touch cloaca to transfer sperm, a process called “cloacal kissing”.In many other terrestrial animals, males use specialized sex organs to assist the transport of sperm—these male sex organs are called intromittent organs. In humans and other mammals this male organ is the penis, which enters the female reproductive tract (called the vagina) to achieve insemination—a process called sexual intercourse. The penis contains a tube through which semen (a fluid containing sperm) travels. In female mammals the vagina connects with the uterus, an organ which directly supports the development of a fertilized embryo within (a process called gestation).
Because of their motility, animal sexual behavior can involve coercive sex. Traumatic insemination, for example, is used by some insect species to inseminate females through a wound in the abdominal cavity – a process detrimental to the female’s health.
Like animals, plants have developed specialized male and female gametes. Within most familiar plants, male gametes are contained within hard coats, forming pollen. The female gametes of plants are contained within ovules; once fertilized by pollen these form seeds which, like eggs, contain the nutrients necessary for the development of the embryonic plant.
Many plants have flowers and these are the sexual organs of those plants. Flowers are usually hermaphroditic, producing both male and female gametes. The female parts, in the center of a flower, are the carpels—one or more of these may be merged to form a single pistil. Within carpels are ovules which develop into seeds after fertilization. The male parts of the flower are the stamens: these long filamentous organs are arranged between the pistil and the petals and produce pollen at their tips. When a pollen grain lands upon the top of a carpel, the tissues of the plant react to transport the grain down into the carpel to merge with an ovule, eventually forming seeds.
In pines and other conifers the sex organs are conifer cones and have male and female forms. The more familiar female cones are typically more durable, containing ovules within them. Male cones are smaller and produce pollen which is transported by wind to land in female cones. As with flowers, seeds form within the female cone after pollination.
Because plants are immobile, they depend upon passive methods for transporting pollen grains to other plants. Many plants, including conifers and grasses, produce lightweight pollen which is carried by wind to neighboring plants. Other plants have heavier, sticky pollen that is specialized for transportation by insects. The plants attract these insects with nectar-containing flowers. Insects transport the pollen as they move to other flowers, which also contain female reproductive organs, resulting in pollination.