All of our somatic cells except the egg and sperm cells contain twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, for a total of forty-six individual chromosomes. This number, twenty-three, is known as the diploid number. If our egg and sperm cells were just like our somatic cells and contained twenty-three pairs of chromosomes, their fusion during fertilization would create a cell with forty-six chromosome pairs, or ninety-two chromosomes total. To prevent that from happening and to ensure a stable number of chromosomes throughout the generations, a special type of cell division is needed to halve the number of chromosomes in egg and sperm cells. This special process is meiosis.
Meiosis creates haploid cells, in which there are twenty-three individual chromosomes, without any pairing. When gametes fuse at conception to produce a zygote, which will turn into a fetus and eventually into an adult human being, the chromosomes containing the mother's and father's genetic material combine to form a single diploid cell. The specialized diploid cells that will eventually undergo meiosis to produce the gametes are called primary oocytes in the female ovary and primary spermatocytes in the male testis. They are set aside from somatic cells early in the course of fetal development.
Even though meiosis is a continuous process in reality, it is convenient to describe it as occurring in two separate rounds of nuclear division. In the first round (meiosis I), the two versions of each chromosome, called homologues or homologous chromosomes, pair up along their entire lengths and thus enable genetic material to be exchanged between them. This exchange process is called crossing over and contributes greatly to the amount of genetic variation that we see between parents and their children. Subsequently, the two homologues are pulled toward opposite ends of their surrounding cell, thus creating a haploid cluster of chromosomes at each pole, at which point division occurs, separating the two clusters. Meiosis I is therefore the actual reduction division. At the end of meiosis I, each chromosome is still composed of two sister strands (chromatids) held together by a particular DNA sequence of about 220 nucleotides, called the centromere. The centromere has a disk-shaped protein molecule (kinetochore) attached to it that is important for the separation of the sister chromatids in the second round of meiosis (meiosis II). Meiosis II is essentially the same division process as mitosis. Through the separation of the two sister chromatids, a total of four daughter cells, each with a haploid set of chromosomes, are created.