A three-dimensional study of human fetal endocervix with special reference to its epithelium


  • Fabrizio Barberini
  • P. M. Motta
  • S. Makabe


uterine cervix, human fetus, epithelium, ultrastructure


The development of human fetal cervix has been systematically studied by SEM, obtaining a detailed map of its fine structure, particularly concerning the differentiation and maturation of the endocervical epithelium, including its "eversion" and "squamous metaplasia", normally occurring in postnatal life, but not yet observed in detail by electron microscopy in the fetus. Cervices from spontaneous abortion at 12, 15, 18, 20, 21 and 22 weeks and from intrauterine fetal death (hydrocephalus) at 31 weeks of development have been examined. At 12-15 weeks, as the canalization of the cervix proceeded, the endocervical epithelium consisted of high polyhedral cells, with regularly flattened or concave apices exhibiting scarce microvilli and often single primary cilia. Some narrow intercellular infoldings probably corresponded to primordial tubular glands. At the 18th week the epithelium was made up of a mosaic of flat or slightly raised polygonal cells, whose apical surface showed thin microplicae. At the 20th week a pseudostratified epithelium with many apically convex cells lined the cervical canal and the tubular glands. At 21 and 22 weeks "plicae palmatae" developed, covered by cells, often showing a smooth central area surrounded by microvilli, provided with a primary cilium and swollen by secretory material. This also formed rounded masses on the epithelium. In the lower part of the endocervix some very elongated cells showed short microplicae resulting from fusion of microvilli. At the 31st week secretion increased and its products spreading from the bottom of the glands contacted isolated ciliated cells at their openings and diffusely covered the surface epithelium. Most of the ectocervix exhibited squamous elements, with welldeveloped labyrinthine microplicae. These cells could overlap each other and also desquamate. The zone of the portio vaginalis around the OS of the cervical canal appeared infolded and hypertrophic. Here, an indented squamo-columnar junction between the ectocervical and endocervical epithelium, caused by tongue-like prolongations of squamous epithelium directed toward the endocervix, was found. Their tips consisted of elongated cells, rich only in short microvilli.

Our data indicate that the features of the microvillous cells are an expression of a hormone-dependent differentiative process. Thus, their secretion might be stimulated by progesterone. Similarly microplicae on the ectocervical epithelium (a sign of squamous maturation) might be promoted by estrogens. Furthemore, two aspects were significative: 1) the finding - in an early phase only (18th week) - of endocervically-located squamous cells, although devoid of microplicae; and 2) the occurrence - in the latest phase (31st week) - of an indented squamo-columnar junction on the surface of the portio. These features are in agreement with the caudal shift of the squamo-columnar junction near the uterine cavity to the ectocervix after cervico-vaginal demarcation; the squamous metaplasia of this everted endocervical epithelium has been reported by some authors. It is likely that these processes, occurring in fetal life as well as in pregnant women, are related to a common hormonal background, arising from the mother to her fetus.