Evidence of a role for cell death in the disappearance of the embryonic human tail


  • This paper is dedicated to our friend and colleague Harland W. Mossman on his eightieth birthday.


The development and disappearance of the human tail between stages 14 and 22 were studied using scanning and transmission electron microscopy, supravital staining and light microscopy. The tail is a prominent feature of the human embryo during stage 14 and is composed of paired somites, mesenchyme and extensions of the neural tube, notochord and gut. The tail grows with the embryo through early stage 17 when it extends more than a millimeter from the trunk. Overgrowth by the trunk at the base of the tail may account for the loss of part of its length during late stage 17 and stage 18. However, during stage 17 cells begin to die in all structures throughout the tail. Cell death continues in the succeeding stages reaching massive numbers by stages 18 and 19, and the tail becomes less and less prominent with developmental time. Most of the dead cells are phagocytosed. The debris-laden macrophages appear to migrate from the tail to the body. By late stage 21 or early stage 22 there is no free tail. We conclude that cell death has a major role in the destruction of tail structures and the concurrent loss of the human tail.