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.

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.

Endoderm is one of the germ layers-- aggregates of cells that organize early during embryonic life and from which all organs and tissues develop. All animals, with the exception of sponges, form either two or three germ layers through a process known as gastrulation. During gastrulation, a ball of cells transforms into a two-layered embryo made of an inner layer of endoderm and an outer layer of ectoderm. In more complex organisms, like vertebrates, these two primary germ layers interact to give rise to a third germ layer, called mesoderm. Regardless of the presence of two or three layers, endoderm is always the inner-most layer. Endoderm forms the epithelium-- a type of tissue in which the cells are tightly linked together to form sheets-- that lines the primitive gut. From this epithelial lining of the primitive gut, organs like the digestive tract, liver, pancreas, and lungs develop.

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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