What is Embryology? Here are the Top 10 Questions You ask about the Science Behind Your Fertility Treatment

Embryology. Andrology. Endocrinology. What do these words mean? You may never even have heard them before! If you’ve had IVF fertility treatment (or researched it) you may have come across the word embryology but even then, you may not really know what it means. Don’t worry, you are not alone!

There are many fertility treatments available for people diagnosed with infertility. Working out the treatment that’s best for your unique needs requires a diverse team of specialists. I guarantee you that this team is larger than you imagine! To overcome your infertility, you need a lot more help than a Fertility Doctor alone can give you!

When you first approach a fertility clinic you will meet excellent nurses and doctors who specialise in infertility. They will be your team of detectives… gathering information about your personal situation and advising you about the range of tests and examinations that are right for you. They’ll put together all the pieces to diagnose the likely causes of your infertility, and to figure out the treatment options most likely to help you achieve a pregnancy.

These specialist fertility nurses and doctors will be with you all the way, throughout your treatment and afterwards, when you are dealing with your results.

The Scientists You’ll Meet in a Fertility Clinic

There’s another important group of people there to help you achieve your pregnancy. They are the scientists. This group of specialised professionals are just as important in getting you to your goal of parenthood. But who are all these people, and what do they actually do?

What is embryology? How is it different from andrology and endocrinology? Let’s break it down so you can understand the wonderful people who you might meet along the way, and what they’ll do to help you achieve your dream of having a baby.

1. What is Embryology?

If you have IVF treatment you are guaranteed to come across this term. Embryology is the science of the very earliest part of human development, the first eight weeks of human existence.

2. What can You Tell me about Human Embryos?

As an adult human you are made up of billions of cells. But did you know that you started as just two cells: An egg from your mother, and a sperm from your father?

These two cells fused together to form a unique new human – You! When this fusion between egg and sperm occurred, an embryo was created. An embryo is a microscopic structure that starts as one cell and then divides over and over and over again, thousands of times. From two cells… to four, to eight to 16 and on and on! The eventual outcome is an amazingly complex human body, with hundreds of tissues, structures and organs, made up from billions of cells.

In a natural pregnancy (one that doesn’t need any fertility treatment to occur) the first five days in the life of an embryo occurs in the fallopian tube where the sperm and egg meet.

In IVF treatment, the eggs are collected from the woman’s body and are placed inside an incubator in an IVF lab. Sperm is placed around the egg and fertilisation occurs in the incubator, outside of the body. So, in IVF, the first five days in the life of an embryo occur in the IVF lab instead of in the body, and this is where embryology plays a critical role.

3. What is an Embryologist?

An embryologist is the clinical scientist who looks after embryos in the IVF lab. He or she has a science degree and specialist training, and knows how to create and nurture embryos in the lab, and to ensure that those embryos have the best chance of growing into a baby.

Embryos are microscopic and cannot be seen with the naked eye. Embryologists are expert at using microscopes to monitor the growth and quality of all the embryos growing in their IVF lab.


RELATED: Get To Know Our Chief Embryologist


4. What does an Embryologist do During IVF?

Human embryos can only survive for a few days in the IVF lab incubators before they need the woman’s womb. During IVF treatment, when the embryo has grown to between three to six days old, it is time for it to be placed inside the woman’s womb. Without the woman’s womb, the embryo would die.

The embryologist and the fertility doctor work side by side, along with other members of the team, to move the embryo from its safe home in the IVF incubator into the woman’s body. (This embryo transfer procedure does not require anaesthesia or sedation; it’s very like having a PAP smear).

An embryo transfer procedure is like a carefully choreographed dance. The embryologist uses a microscope to locate the embryo and gently suck it up into a thin flexible plastic tube called a catheter. Meanwhile, the fertility doctor gets the woman’s body ready for the embryo. Using an instrument (called a speculum) in the vagina, the doctor locates and cleans the neck of the womb.

What needs to Happen in Embryology before the Embryo Implants into the Womb Lining

The doctor’s assistant uses an ultrasound scanner on the abdomen and helps the doctor find the best spot for an embryo to be placed. The embryologist passes the catheter containing the embryo to the fertility doctor, who places it gently into the right spot inside the womb. When the doctor has the catheter in the perfect spot, the embryologist ejects the embryo into the uterus by flushing a small amount of special fluid through the catheter. A very complicated piece of teamwork!

The transferred embryo floats around inside the womb for a few days, all the time still increasing in size as the cells continually grow and divide. If the embryo is dividing and growing normally and has the correct chromosomes or genes, it will find a good spot to latch on and hopefully implant into the womb lining.

5. What’s the Difference between Embryology and Genetics?

Genetics is the scientific study of inheritance patterns in all organisms, including humans. Embryology, on the other hand, is the scientific study of the development of a fertilised embryo in the first eight weeks of its life.

Genetics and embryology are closely intertwined, because the development of a human embryo is controlled by the genetics of that embryo.

6. What is a Designer Baby? How can Embryos be used for Genetic Engineering?

It is possible to change or interfere with the genetics of a growing embryo. With a variety of genetic technologies, scientists now know where many disease-causing genes are located in our DNA. Scientists also know the location of some of the genes controlling certain aspects of human attributes, including genes for eye colour, left- or right-handedness, addictive behaviour and athleticism. This means that it is theoretically possible to alter, add or delete one of these genes in a human embryo.

In theory, this would create a so-called designer baby, with particular physical attributes or immunity to certain diseases. There are so many ethical and medical concerns about this practice that it is banned by law in most countries.

7. What is Genetic Embryo Testing?

It is possible to remove some cells from a human embryo in an IVF lab. These cells can then be tested to check for genetic diseases. This is called Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis, also known as PGT, PGD and PGS. “Pre-implantation” refers to the fact that this embryo has not implanted into the womb lining as yet.

8. What is Andrology and what is an Andrologist?

Andrology is the scientific study of the male reproductive system and the medical conditions that can occur in this system. An andrologist is a doctor who specialises in this area. An andrology lab technician is a laboratory scientist trained in semen analysis and sperm preparation for fertility treatments. In a fertility clinic you may meet the andrology lab technicians when you do sperm testing. During fertility treatment it’s very important to have your tests done by qualified andrology specialists.

9. What is Endocrinology and what is an Endocrinologist?

Endocrinology is the scientific study of the endocrine system. In the human body this system is a group of nine endocrine glands which secrete hormones. These glands are the in the brain (pineal, hypothalamus and pituitary), the neck (thyroid, parathyroid and thymus), the abdomen (adrenals and pancreas), and the reproductive glands, i.e. the ovaries or the testes.

Hormones are chemicals produced in the endocrine glands and released into the bloodstream. They are messengers that are essential to your body’s proper functioning, including your metabolism, respiration, growth, movement, and reproduction.

An endocrinologist is a doctor who began his or her career in general medicine and then specialised in the study of the disorders of the endocrine system in the human body such as diabetes and thyroid conditions.

10. What is a Reproductive Endocrinologist?

A reproductive endocrinologist (also called a fertility doctor) is a doctor who started as an obstetrician and gynaecologist and then specialised in the disorders of the reproductive endocrine system in the body. This includes infertility. This is the doctor who you see for assessment and treatment in a fertility clinic.

So there you have it. Embryology and the fabulous scientists who make sure you and your precious embryos receive the best possible care throughout your fertility journey. They may work quietly behind the scenes, but they are a vital part of the integrated team that helps you on the road to conception!