The three-part documentary series Countdown to Life: The Extraordinary Making of You, by Jonathan Renouf, Naomi Austin and Martin Johnson is depicted around the journey to discover the process of the formation of us, the human beings.
Hosted by Michael Mosley; the documentary contains animations of fetal development and individual’s sharing their stories about their own birth defects while relating to the fetal developmental process that happens prior to birth.
Though the documentary does not explain the human development process in details, I decided that this was a good start for laymen who wants to understand the process of how us human beings are made from the point of conception to the point of birth at forty weeks.
As a human being living in the social community, we need a better understanding on how an individual operates either biologically, behaviourally or emotionally.
The documentary emphasized on critical stages that happened before we were born and the consequences of having a defect when the developmental process was disrupted. In which it delivers, it also brought upon the uniqueness and differences of human beings in the concept of biology, focusing especially in genetics.
In the following paragraphs, while basing on the documentary I will explain more in details on the critical stages of fetal development process with in-depth explanations of the defects that could occur within these stages.The first episode of the documentary series ventures around the processes that happens to the embryo during the first eight weeks in the uterus.
It shows how the human development began with the process called fertilisation where the male gamete, sperm together with the female gamete, the oocyte, fused and unite to give rise to a zygote (Sadler ; Langman, 2012). Two sets of genetic instructions, half from each parent combined to create unique genetic code for one human being.
Occasionally, instead of forming only one zygote, the cell divides to become identical twins, triplets, and in rare cases, even quadruplet cases. Holly, Jessica, Ellie and Georgie, are one of the rare identical quadruplets in which it was mentioned that the odds of having four genetically identical individuals are one in 64 million.
A theory was presented for how separate embryos can be formed and it was due to the breakdown of vital communication between the cells causing clumps of cells to get separated and went on to create separate individuals. This shows that just from a simple yet complicated breakdown process that occurs between the cells, it could affect the number of individuals to be formed, causing the creation of identical twins. This however, does not applies to what we called fraternal twins.
In biology, identical twins are termed as monozygotic twins while fraternal twins are termed dizygotic twins. According to Lakna (2017), on her article Difference between Monozygotic and Dizygotic Twins, she explained that dizygotic twins are developed from totally two different eggs, which are fertilized by sperms separately.
When a woman is pregnant with fraternal twins, it is like having two pregnancies at one simultaneous time. Unlike identical twins that are genetically similar, fraternal twins are entirely different individuals that does not share the same genetic properties. It is mesmerising to find that human could be undergoing the same process yet so different, due to simple twists just within five days of conception.
I was bewildered by the next fact that I found from the documentary. It was claimed that around 200 hours after conception, changes that occurred in the embryo can determine the lifep of an individual. Based on seventy-year research done in Keneba,Gambia that study on this matter, children conceived during dry months are at seven times higher risk of mortality compared to that of children conceived during wet months.
In dry season, mothers eat more calorie-rich grains compared to mothers who conceive in the wet season, who eat more leafy greens. The moleculer chemical from the vegetables combines with the strand of DNA and changes how some our genes work permanently, affecting our lifep.
In many socio-cultural norms in the world, the expression “eating for two” is commonly heard to refer to pregnant women in regards to their dietary habits. Ellis, Giannetti, and Fagan (2011) conducted an analysis of relationship of mother’s nutritional intake with the effect on her developing fetus in life. In the analysis, the authors stated that, “the most important thing a mother can do during pregnancy is take care of her own body so that the baby can flourish later in life”.
Hence, it is clear that mother plays important role in determining the health of the future generation that will be born, either physically, metabolically, psychologically or genetically.Melanie Gaydos’ story is one of the stories that remained intact in my mind from the moment I watched it.
From the story, I knew that her birth defect has affected her deeply in psychosocial aspect and influenced the flows of her life, shaping her for who she was. Her story discussed on what happened to a fetus within the first fifteen days after conception.
The cells began to transform into over four hundred different cell types to make up parts of the body. Human beings are made up of three layers of cells; ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm. Any defect during this point of transformation could produce serious defects to the embryo, such as in Gaydos’ case, ectodermal dysplasia.
Ectodermal dysplasia is a group of inherited disorders characterised by defect in hair, teeth, nails, or sweat gland function, in addition to other abnormalities in the ectodermal tissues.
The disease is caused by mutation or deletion of particular genes located on different chromosomes and it either can be passed down the family line, or the mutation occurred de novo (Bhaudaria, Sharma, & Prajapat, 2014). Talking about genes, the documentary also shared the story of Nell who inherited an extra growth gene from her father.
Unlike her, a normal embryo inherits one only growth gene from both paternal and maternal origin and each of the gene balance one another to produce a normal-sized embryo. This defect made her a large for gestational age (LGA) fetus and the extra gene has stimulated the overproduction of growth hormone, IGF-2.
She became morphologically larger than her peers and consequently, exposed her to a high risk of cancer. From their cases, it is important that we need to have a normal gene development to ensure a normal development of self.In our body, we have hair-like projections called cilia to direct the proper placement of organs in our body.
The process usually occurs around nineteen days after conception. Average normal human beings have their hearts located on the left side of the body and the liver is located on the right side. In rare instances, there are cases where the organs are located in totally opposite sites like a mirror image and this happened to Randy Foye.
His condition is called dextrocardia. Maldjian and Saric (2007) wrote a review on dextrocardia. According to their review, dextrocardia is a heart positional anomaly in which heart is located in the right hemithorax with its base-to-apex axis directed to the right and is caused by intrinsic factors of the heart itself.
Since I was a medical student before, I could assure that his condition would definitely baffled any doctors of any level of experience during the regular medical check-up session. Fortunately, according to the documentary the condition did no harm to his body and he could live as a normal living being, outwardly. Commonly, dextrocardia is accompanied by cardiac anomalies (Maldjian & Saric, 2007).
The formation of the heart itself began when the embryo was initially a flat disc. It then folded and became a neural tube and the edges came together to form a spinal cord. Eventually, primitive heart was created and within five weeks of pregnancy, it could already be detected by using ultrasound.
Heart anomalies are extremely serious that some babies need an immediate surgery right after born. Examples of congenital heart defects are right ventricular hypertrophy, aortic valve stenosis, coarctation of aorta or atrial septal defect.
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