Haeckel believed that the development of an embryo revealed the adult stages of the organism’s ancestors. Haeckel represented this idea with drawings of vertebrate embryos at similar developmental stages. This is Haeckel’s embryo grid, the most common of all illustrations in biology textbooks. Yet, Haeckel’s embryo grids are much more complex than any textbook explanation. I examined 240 high school biology textbooks, from 1907 to 2010, for embryo grids. I coded and categorized the grids according to accompanying discussion of (a) embryonic similarities (b) recapitulation, (c) common ancestors, and (d) evolution.

In humans, sex determination is the process that determines the biological sex of an offspring and, as a result, the sexual characteristics that they will develop. Humans typically develop as either male or female, primarily depending on the combination of sex chromosomes that they inherit from their parents. The human sex chromosomes, called X and Y, are structures in human cells made up of tightly bound deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, and proteins. Those are molecules that contain the instructions for the development and functioning of all life forms, including the development of physical traits and body parts that correspond with each biological sex. Humans who inherit two X chromosomes typically develop as females, while humans with one X and one Y chromosome typically develop as males. Sex determination is the beginning of the development of many characteristics that influence how a human looks and functions as well as the societal expectations that other humans have for each other.

In 2018, He Jiankui uploaded a series of videos to a YouTube channel titled “The He Lab” that detailed one of the first instances of a successful human birth after genome editing had been performed on an embryo using CRISPR-cas9. CRISPR-cas9 is a genome editing tool derived from bacteria that can be used to cut out and replace specific sequences of DNA. He genetically modified embryos at his lab in Shenzhen, China, to make them immune to contracting HIV through indirect perinatal transmission from their father, who was infected with the virus. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune cells of its host and weakens their ability to fight off diseases. At the time of He’s experiment, various treatments already existed at that could prevent the fetuses from contracting HIV without the need for gene surgery. Nonetheless, He’s experiment led to one of the first successful births of fetuses resulting from genetically modified embryos. He kept his experiment secret until he uploaded the videos announcing the birth of the fetuses, born as two twin girls. The experiment discussed in the videos was successful, but many scientists criticized the experiment due to ethical concerns with the way He conducted it.

Methylmercury (MeHg) is an organic form of mercury that can damage the developing brains of human fetuses. Women who consume methylmercury during pregnancy can bear children who have neurological issues because methylmercury has toxic effects on the nervous system during embryonic development. During the third week of gestation, the human nervous system begins to form in the embryo. During this gestational period, the embryo's nervous system is particularly susceptible to the influence of neurotoxins like methylmercury that can result in abnormalities. Furthermore, the fetal brain can incur damage despite the lack of signs of poisoning in the pregnant woman. In children, defects due to methylmercury can result in deficits in attention, behavior, cognition, and motor skills.

Aristotle studied developing organisms, among other things, in ancient Greece, and his writings shaped Western philosophy and natural science for greater than two thousand years. He spent much of his life in Greece and studied with Plato at Plato's Academy in Athens, where he later established his own school called the Lyceum. Aristotle wrote greater than 150 treatises on subjects ranging from aesthetics, politics, ethics, and natural philosophy, which include physics and biology. Less than fifty of Aristotle's treatises persisted into the twenty-first century. In natural philosophy, later called natural science, Aristotle established methods for investigation and reasoning and provided a theory on how embryos generate and develop. He originated the theory that an organism develops gradually from undifferentiated material, later called epigenesis.

In the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Gail Roberta Martin specialized in biochemistry and embryology, more specifically cellular communication and the development of organs. In 1981, she named any cell taken from inside a human embryo at the blastocyst stage an “embryonic stem cell”. During development, an embryo goes through the blastocyst stage just before it implants in the uterus. Embryonic stem cells are useful for experiments because they are self-renewing and able to develop into almost any cell type in the body. Martin later identified a key chemical component in limb development and continues to study embryogenesis, or the growth of embryos over time. Martin’s work on embryonic stem cells has allowed scientists to further research and treat human diseases, and her study of how organs form has helped scientists learn about the healthy growth of embryos.

De ovi mammalium et hominis genesi (On the Genesis of the Ovum of Mammals and of Men) is an 1827 pamphlet by Karl Ernst von Baer about the anatomical observation and description of the egg (ovum) of mammals, like dogs and humans. The pamphlet detailed evidence for the existence of the ovum at the beginning of the developmental process in mammals. Prior to von Baer's publication, there was much debate about how organisms develop, as some claimed that organisms grow from a corpuscular element already preformed in the body (preformationism), and others said that organisms developed from a fluid material undergoing a process of progressive formation (epigenesis). Researchers at the time struggled to observe the early stages of development, and those such as von Baer had to observe the phenomenon through microscopes and then provide interpretations of the phenomena they observed.

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