A germ layer is a collection of cells, formed during animal embryogenesis. Germ layers are only really pronounced in the vertebrates. However, all animals more complex than sponges (eumetazoans and agnotozoans) produce two or three primary tissue layers (sometimes called primary germ layers). Animals with radial symmetry, like cnidarians, produce two called ectoderm and endoderm, making them diploblastic. Animals with bilateral symmetry produce a third layer in-between called mesoderm, making them triploblastic. Germ layers will eventually give rise to all of an animal’s tissues and organs through a process called organogenesis.
Caspar Friedrich Wolff observed organization of the early embryo in leaf-like layers. Later, Heinz Christian Pander discovered germ layers while studying chick embryos.
According to the number of layers produced, animals are classified as diploblastic (two layers) or triploblastic (three layers). All animals, except those in the branch radiata, are triploblastic.
Fertilization leads to the formation of a zygote. During the next stage, cleavage, mitotic cell divisions transform the zygote into a tiny ball of cells called a blastula. This early embryonic form undergoes a massive reorganization called gastrulation forming a gastrula with either two or three layers (the germ layers). In all vertebrates, these are the forerunners of all adult tissues and organs.
The endoderm produces tissue within the lungs, thyroid, and pancreas.
The endoderm is one of the germ layers formed during animal embryogenesis. Cells migrating inward along the archenteron form the inner layer of the gastrula, which develops into the endoderm.
The endoderm consists at first of flattened cells, which subsequently become columnar. It forms the epithelial lining of the whole of the digestive tube excepting part of the mouth and pharynx and the terminal part of the rectum (which are lined by involutions of the ectoderm). The lining cells of all the glands which open into the digestive tube, including those of the liver and pancreas, the epithelium of the auditory tube and tympanic cavity, of the trachea, bronchi, and air cells of the lungs, of the urinary bladder and part of the urethra, and that which lines the follicles of the thyroid gland and thymus are also formed by this layer.
The mesoderm aids in the production of cardiac muscle, skeletal muscle, smooth muscle, tissues within the kidneys, and red blood cells.
The mesoderm germ layer forms in the embryos of animals more complex than cnidarians, making them triploblastic. During gastrulation, some of the cells migrating inward to form the endoderm form an additional layer between the endoderm and the ectoderm.
This key innovation evolved hundreds of millions of years ago and led to the evolution of nearly all large, complex animals. The formation of a mesoderm led to the formation of a coelom. Organs formed inside a coelom can freely move, grow, and develop independently of the body wall while fluid cushions and protects them from shocks.
The ectoderm produces tissues within the epidermis and aids in the formation of neurons within the brain, and melanocytes.
The ectoderm is the start of a tissue that covers the body surfaces. It emerges first and forms from the outermost of the germ layers.
Due to the great importance of the neural crest it has been referred to as the fourth germ layer.