Ectoderm is one of three germ layers--groups of cells that coalesce early during the embryonic life of all animals except maybe sponges, and from which organs and tissues form. As an embryo develops, a single fertilized cell progresses through multiple rounds of cell division. Eventually, the clump of cells goes through a stage called gastrulation, during which the embryo reorganizes itself into the three germ layers: endoderm, ectoderm, and mesoderm. After gastrulation, the embryo goes through a process called neurulation, which starts the development of nervous system.

A germ layer is a group of cells in an embryo that interact with each other as the embryo develops and contribute to the formation of all organs and tissues. All animals, except perhaps sponges, form two or three germ layers. The germ layers develop early in embryonic life, through the process of gastrulation. During gastrulation, a hollow cluster of cells called a blastula reorganizes into two primary germ layers: an inner layer, called endoderm, and an outer layer, called ectoderm. Diploblastic organisms have only the two primary germ layers; these organisms characteristically have multiple symmetrical body axes (radial symmetry), as is true of jellyfish, sea anemones, and the rest of the phylum Cnidaria. All other animals are triploblastic, as endoderm and ectoderm interact to produce a third germ layer, called mesoderm. Together, the three germ layers will give rise to every organ in the body, from skin and hair to the digestive tract.

Julia Barlow Platt studied neural crests in animal embryos and became involved in politics in the US during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She researched how body and head segments formed in chicks (Gallus gallus) and spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias). Platt observed that in the mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus), the coordinated migration of neural crest cells in the embryo produced parts of the nervous system, bones, and connective tissues in the head. Platt's research indicated that the neural crest functioned like a germ layer, it challenged existing theories of what sorts of tissues arose from each of an embryo's germ layers, and it described early developmental stages of the nervous system.

In 1893, Julia Barlow Platt published her research on the origins of cartilage in the developing head of the common mudpuppy (Necturus maculosus) embryo. The mudpuppy is an aquatic salamander commonly used by embryologists because its large embryonic cells and nuclei are easy to see. Platt followed the paths of cells in developing mudpuppy embryos to see how embryonic cells migrated during the formation of the head. With her research, Platt challenged then current theories about germ layers, the types of cells in an early embryo that develop into adult cells. In most organisms' development, three types of germ layers are responsible for the formation of tissues and organs. The outermost layer is called ectoderm, the middle layer mesoderm, and the innermost layer endoderm, although Platt called it entoderm. Platt's research provided a basis for scientists to clarify the destination or function of the germ layers in vertebrates' development.

A 3-D fate map of the chicken (Gallus gallus) embryo with the prospective point of ingression and yolk. The area where the primitive streak will form during gastrulation is shown. The anterior- posterior axis is shown by labeling the anterior and posterio ends (A) and (P). Different colors indicate prospective fates of different regions of the epiblast after gastrulation.

This diagram shows how NCCs migrate differently in rats, birds and amphibians. The arrows represent both chronology of NCCs migration and the differential paths that NCCs follow in different classes of animals. The solid black portion of each illustration represents the neural crest, and the large black dots in (c) and in (f) represent the neural crest cells. The speckled sections that at first form a basin in (a) and then close to form a tube in (f) represent the neural ectoderm. The solid white portions represent the epidermal ectoderm.

From a developing embryos three primary germ layers, ectoderm (green), mesoderm (pink) and endoderm (yellow), a variety of differentiated cell types and organ systems arise, far more than are shown here. The three primary germ layers are shown during the gastrula stage because they become distinct at the gastrula stage. The germ cells (blue) are pre- cursors to sperm and egg cells, and they are set aside early in development, and are thought to arise from the ectoderm.

Illustration of the movement of the three hemispheres of cells, the animal cap (dark green) the marginal zone (lime green) and the ventral cap (yellow) during frog gastrulation. The external view column (images a.1-a.6) shows gastrulation as it occurs on the outside of the embryo. The cross-section view column (images b.1-b.6) shows the internal view of gastrulation. The cross-sections are through the middle of the embryo.

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