Sexual reproduction crucially depends on the production of sperm in males and oocytes in females. Both types of gamete arise from the same precursor, the germ cells. We review the events that characterize the development of germ cells during fetal life as they commit to, and prepare for, oogenesis or spermatogenesis. In females, fetal germ cells enter meiosis, whereas in males they delay meiosis and instead lose pluripotency, activate an irreversible program of prospermatogonial differentiation, and temporarily cease dividing. Both pathways involve sex-specific molecular signals from the somatic cells of the developing gonads and a suite of intrinsic receptors, signal transducers, transcription factors, RNA stability factors, and epigenetic modulators that act in complex, interconnected positive and negative regulatory networks. Understanding these networks is important in the contexts of the etiology, diagnosis, and treatment of infertility and gonadal cancers, and in efforts to augment human and animal fertility using stem cell approaches.


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