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Cell (biology)

Cells in culture, for (red) and (green)
Cells in culture, stained for keratin (red) and DNA (green)

The cell is the structural and functional unit of all living organisms. Some organisms, such as bacteria, are unicellular, consisting of a single cell. Other organisms, such as humans, are multicellular, (humans have an estimated 100,000 billion = 1014 cells). The cell theory, first developed in the 19th century, states that all organisms are composed of one or more cells; all cells come from preexisting cells; all vital functions of an organism occur within cells and that cells contain the hereditary information necessary for regulating cell functions and for transmitting information to the next generation of cells.

The word cell comes from the Latin cella, a small room. The name was chosen by Robert Hooke because of the likeness he saw between cork cells and small rooms.



Properties of cells

Mouse cells grown in a culture dish. These cells grow in large clumps but each individual cell is about 10 across.
Mouse cells grown in a culture dish. These cells grow in large clumps but each individual cell is about 10 micrometres across.

Each cell is a self-contained and self-maintaining entity: it can take in nutrients, convert these nutrients into energy, carry out specialized functions, and reproduce as necessary. Each cell stores its own set of instructions for carrying out each of these activities.

All cells share several abilities:

Types of cells

One way to classify cells is whether they live alone or in groups. Organisms vary from single cells (called single-celled or unicellular organisms) that function and survive more or less independently, through colonial forms with cells living together, to multicellular forms in which cells are specialized and do not generally survive once separated. 220 types of cells and tissues make up the multicellular human body.

Cells can also be classified into two categories based on their internal structure.

  • Eukaryotic cells have organelles with their own membranes. Single-celled eukaryotic organisms are very diverse, but many colonial and multicellular forms also exist. (The multicellular kingdoms, i.e., Animalia, Plantae and Fungi, are all eukaryotic.)

Components of cells

Schematic of typical animal cell. : (1) (2) (3) (4) ,(5) rough (ER), (6) , (7) , (8) smooth ER, (9) , (10) , (11) , (12) , (13)
Schematic of typical animal cell. Organelles: (1) nucleolus (2) nucleus (3) ribosome (4) vesicle,(5) rough endoplasmic reticulum (ER), (6) Golgi apparatus, (7) Cytoskeleton, (8) smooth ER, (9) mitochondria, (10) vacuole, (11) cytoplasm, (12) lysosome, (13) centrioles

All cells whether prokaryotic or eukaryotic have a membrane, which envelopes the cell, separates its interior from the surroundings, strictly controls what moves in and out and maintains the electric potential of the cell. Inside the membrane is a salty cytoplasm (the substance which makes up most of the cell volume). All cells possess DNA, the hereditary material of genes and RNA, which contain the information necessary to express various proteins such as enzyme, the cell's primary machinery. Within the cell at any given time are various additional biomolecules. This article will briefly overview these primary components of the cell then continue to briefly describe their function.

Cell membrane - a cell's protective coat

Main article: Cell membrane

The outer lining of a eukaryotic cell is called the plasma membrane. A form of plasma membrane is also found in prokaryotes, but in this organism it is usually referred to as the cell membrane. This membrane serves to separate and protect a cell from its surrounding environment and is made mostly from a double layer of lipids (fat-like molecules) and proteins. Embedded within this membrane are a variety of other molecules that act as channels and pumps, moving different molecules into and out of the cell.

Cytoskeleton - a cell's scaffold

Main article: Cytoskeleton

The cytoskeleton is an important, complex, and dynamic cell component. It acts to organize and maintain the cell's shape; anchors organelles in place; helps during endocytosis, the uptake of external materials by a cell; and moves parts of the cell in processes of growth and motility. There are a great number of proteins associated with the cytoskeleton, each controlling a cell’s structure by directing, bundling, and aligning filaments.

Cytoplasm - a cell's inner space

Main article: Cytoplasm

Inside the cell there is a large fluid-filled space called the cytoplasm. This refers both to the mixture of ions and fluids in solution within the cell, and the organelles contained in it which are separated from this intercellular "soup" by their own membranes. The cytosol refers only to the fluid, and not to the organelles.

In prokaryotes, the cytoplasm is relatively free of compartments. In eukaryotes, it normally contains a large number of organelles, and is the home of the cytoskeleton. The cytosol contains dissolved nutrients, helps break down waste products, and moves material around the cell through a process called cytoplasmic streaming. The nucleus often flows with the cytoplasm changing its shape as it moves. The cytoplasm also contains many salts and is an excellent conductor of electricity, creating the perfect environment for the mechanics of the cell. The function of the cytoplasm, and the organelles which reside in it, are critical for a cell's survival.

Genetic material

Two different kinds of genetic material exist: deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). Most organisms use DNA for their long term information storage, but a few viruses have RNA as their genetic material. The biological information contained in an organism is encoded in its DNA or RNA sequence. Note that RNA is also used for information transport (mRNA) and enzymatic functions (like ribosomal RNA) in most organisms.

Prokaryotic genetic material is organized in a simple circular DNA molecule (the bacterial chromosome) that rests in the cytoplasm (more specifically in the nucleoid region). Eukaryotic genetic material is more complex (DNA is condensed with proteins) and is divided into different, linear molecules called chromosomes, which are found inside the nucleus and can come in an haploid or diploid set. Besides some organelles have their own genetic material, which is complemented by the nuclear genome (see endosymbiotic theory).

Human genetic material, for example, is made up of two distinct components: the nuclear genome and the mitochondrial genome. The nuclear genome (being diploid) is divided into 46 linear DNA molecules, each contained in a different chromosome. The mitochondrial genome is a circular DNA molecule separate from the nuclear DNA. Although the mitochondrial genome is very small, it codes for some very important proteins.


Main article: Organelle

The human body contains many different organs, such as the heart, lung, and kidney, with each organ performing a different function. Cells also have a set of "little organs", called organelles, that are adapted and/or specialized for carrying out one or more vital functions. Organelles are found only in eukaryotes and are, with a few exceptions, surrounded by a protective membrane.

  • Cell nucleus - a cell's center: The cell nucleus is the most conspicuous organelle found in a eukaryotic cell. It houses the cell's chromosomes and is the place where almost all DNA replication and RNA synthesis occur. The nucleus is spheroid in shape and separated from the cytoplasm by a double membrane called the nuclear envelope. The nuclear envelope isolates and protects a cell's DNA from various molecules that could accidentally damage its structure or interfere with its processing. During processing, DNA is transcribed, or copied into a special RNA, called mRNA. This mRNA is then transported out of the nucleus, where it is translated into a specific protein molecule. In prokaryotes, DNA processing takes place in the cytoplasm.
  • Ribosomes - the protein production machine: Ribosomes are found in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The ribosome is a large complex composed of many molecules, including RNAs and proteins, and is responsible for processing the genetic instructions carried by an mRNA. The process of converting an mRNA's genetic code into the exact sequence of amino acids that make up a protein is called translation. Protein synthesis is extremely important to all cells, and therefore a large number of ribosomes—sometimes hundreds or even thousands—can be found throughout a cell.
  • Mitochondria and chloroplasts - the power generators: Mitochondria are self-replicating organelles that occur in various numbers, shapes, and sizes in the cytoplasm of all eukaryotic cells. As mentioned earlier, mitochondria contain their own genome that is separate and distinct from the nuclear genome of a cell. Mitochondria play a critical role in generating energy in the eukaryotic cell, and this process involves a number of complex metabolic pathways. Chloroplasts are similar to mitochondria but they are larger, convert solar energy into a chemical one (via photosynthesis) and are found only in plants.
  • Endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus - macromolecule managers:: The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is the transport network for molecules targeted for certain modifications and specific destinations, as compared to molecules that will float freely in the cytoplasm. The ER has two forms: the rough ER and the smooth ER. The rough ER is labeled as such because it has ribosomes adhering to its outer surface, whereas the smooth ER does not. Translation of the mRNA for those proteins that will either stay in the ER or be exported (moved out of the cell) occurs at the ribosomes attached to the rough ER. Proteins to be exported are passed to the Golgi apparatus, sometimes called a Golgi body or Golgi complex, for further processing, packaging, and transport to a variety of other cellular locations. The smooth ER serves for lipids synthesis, detoxification and as a calcium reservoir.
  • Lysosomes and peroxisomes - the cellular digestive system: Lysosomes and peroxisomes are often referred to as the garbage disposal system of a cell. Both organelles are somewhat spherical, bound by a single membrane, and rich in digestive enzymes, naturally occurring proteins that speed up biochemical processes. For example, lysosomes can contain more than three dozen enzymes for degrading proteins, nucleic acids, and certain sugars called polysaccharides. Here we can see the importance behind compartmentalization of the eukaryotic cell. The cell could not house such destructive enzymes if they were not contained in a membrane-bound system.

Anatomy of cells

Prokaryotic cells

Prokaryotes are distinguished from eukaryotes on the basis of nuclear organization, specifically their lack of a nuclear membrane. Prokaryotes also lack any of the intracellular organelles and structures that are characteristic of eukaryotic cells. Most of the functions of organelles, such as mitochondria, chloroplasts, and the Golgi apparatus, are taken over by the prokaryotic plasma membrane. Prokaryotic cells have three architectural regions: appendages called flagella and pili—proteins attached to the cell surface; a cell envelope consisting of a capsule, a cell wall, and a plasma membrane; and a cytoplasmic region that contains the cell genome (DNA) and ribosomes and various sorts of inclusions. Other differences include:

  • The cytoplasm of prokaryotes (the liquid which makes up most of the cell volume) is diffuse and granular due to ribosomes (protein factories) floating in the cell.
  • The plasma membrane (a phospholipid bilayer) separates the interior of the cell from its environment and serves as a filter and communications beacon.
  • Most prokaryotes have a cell wall (some exceptions are Mycoplasma (a bacterium) and Thermoplasma (an archaeon)). It consists of peptidoglycan in bacteria, and acts as an additional barrier against exterior forces. It also prevents the cell from "exploding" from osmotic pressure against a hypotonic environment.
  • A prokaryotic chromosome is usually a circular molecule (an exception is that of the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which causes Lyme disease). Even without a real nucleus, the DNA is somehow condensed in a nucleoid. Prokaryotes can carry extrachromosomal DNA elements called plasmids, which are usually circular. Plasmids can carry additional functions, such as antibiotic resistance.
  • Some prokaryotes have flagella which enable them to move actively instead of passively drifting.

Eukaryotic cells

Eukaryotic cells are about 10 times the size of a prokaryote and can be as much as 1000 times greater in volume. The major and extremely significant difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes is that eukaryotic cells contain membrane-bound compartments in which specific metabolic activities take place. Most important among these is the presence of a nucleus, a membrane-delineated compartment that houses the eukaryotic cell’s DNA. It is this nucleus that gives the eukaryote—literally, true nucleus—its name. Eukaryotic organisms also have other specialized structures, performing dedicated functions, the aforementioned organelles.. Other differences include:

  • The cytoplasm of eukaryotes does not appear as granular as that of prokaryotes, since an important part of the ribosomes are bound to the endoplasmic reticulum.
  • The plasma membrane resembles that of prokaryotes in function, with minor differences in the setup. Cell walls may or may not be present.
  • The eukaryotic DNA is organized in one or more linear molecules, called chromosomes, which are highly condensed (e.g. folded around histones). All chromosomal DNA is stored in the cell nucleus, separated from the cytoplasm by a membrane. Some eukaryotic organelles can contain some DNA.
  • Eukaryotes can become mobile using cilia or flagella. The flagella are more complex than those of prokaryotes.
Table 1: Comparison of features of prokaroytic and eukaryotic cells
  Prokaryotes Eukaryotes
Typical organisms bacteria, archaea protists, fungi, plants, animals
Typical size ~ 1-10 Ám ~ 10-100 Ám (sperm cells, apart from the tail, are smaller)
Type of nucleus nucleoid region; no real nucleus real nucleus with double membrane
DNA circular (usually) linear molecules (chromosomes) with histone proteins
RNA-/protein-synthesis coupled in cytoplasm RNA-synthesis inside the nucleus
protein synthesis in cytoplasm
Ribosomes 50S+30S 60S+40S
Cytoplasmatic structure very few structures highly structured by endomembranes and a cytoskeleton
Cell movement flagella made of flagellin flagella and cilia made of tubulin
Mitochondria none one to several dozen (though some lack mitochondria)
Chloroplasts none in algae and plants
Organization usually single cells single cells, colonies, higher multicellular organisms with specialized cells
Cell division Binary fission (simple division) Mitosis
Table 2: Comparison of structures between animal and plant cells
Typical animal cell Typical plant cell
Additional structures

Cell functions

Cell growth and metabolism

Main articles: Cell growth, Cell metabolism

Between successive cell divisions cells grow through the functioning of cellular metabolism. Cell metabolism is the process by which individual cells process nutrient molecules. Metabolism has two distinct divisions; catabolism, in which the cell breaks down complex molecules to produce energy and reducing power, and anabolism, where the cell uses energy and reducing power to construct complex molecules and perform other biological functions. Complex sugars consumed by the organism can be broken down into a less chemically complex sugar molecule called glucose. Once inside the cell, glucose is broken down to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a form of energy, via two different pathways.

The first pathway, glycolysis, requires no oxygen and is referred to as anaerobic metabolism. Each reaction is designed to produce some hydrogen ions that can then be used to make energy packets (ATP). In prokaryotes, glycolysis is the only method used for converting energy. The second pathway, called the Kreb's cycle, or citric acid cycle, occurs inside the mitochondria and is capable of generating enough ATP to run all the cell functions.

Making new cells

Main article: Cell division

Cell division involves a single cell (called a mother cell) dividing into two daughter cells. This leads to growth in multicellular organisms (the growth of tissue) and to procreation (vegetative reproduction) in unicellular organisms. Prokaryotic cells divide by binary fission. Eukaryotic cells usually undergo a process of nuclear division, called mitosis, followed by division of the cell, called cytokinesis. A diploid cell may also undergo meiosis to produce haploid cells, usually four. Haploid cells serve as gametes in multicellular organisms, fusing to form new diploid cells. DNA replication, or the process of duplicating a cell's genome, is required every time a cell divides. Replication, like all cellular activities, requires specialized proteins for carrying out the job.

Protein synthesis

Main article: Protein biosynthesis

Protein synthesis is the process in which the cell builds proteins. DNA transcription refers to the synthesis of a messenger RNA (mRNA) molecule from a DNA template. This process is very similar to DNA replication. Once the mRNA has been generated, a new protein molecule is synthesized via the process of translation.

The cellular machinery responsible for synthesizing proteins is the ribosome. The ribosome consists of structural RNA and about 80 different proteins. When the ribosome encounters an mRNA, the process of translating an mRNA to a protein begins. The ribosome accepts a new transfer RNA, or tRNA—the adaptor molecule that acts as a translator between mRNA and protein—bearing an amino acid, the building block of the protein. Another site binds the tRNA that becomes attached to the growing chain of amino acids, forming the a polypeptide chain that will eventually be processed to become a protein.

Origins of cells

Main article: Origin of life

The origin of cells has to do with the origin of life, and was one of the most important steps in evolution of life as we know it. The birth of the cell marked the passage from prebiotic chemistry to biological life.

Origin of first cell

If life is viewed from the point of view of replicators, that is DNA molecules in the organism, cells satisfy two fundamental conditions: protection from the outside environment and confinement of biochemical activity. The former condition is needed to maintain the fragile DNA chains stable in a varying and sometimes aggressive environment, and may have been the main reason for which cells evolved. The latter is fundamental for the evolution of biological complexity . If freely-floating DNA molecules that code for enzymes that are not enclosed into cells, the enzymes that advantage a given DNA molecule (for example, by producing nucleotides) will automatically advantage the neighbouring DNA molecules. This might be viewed as "parasitism by default". Therefore the selection pressure on DNA molecules will be much lower, since there is not a definitive advantage for the "lucky" DNA molecule that produces the better enzyme over the others: all molecules in a given neighbourhood are almost equally advantaged.

If all the DNA molecule is enclosed in a cell, then the enzymes coded from the molecule will be kept close to the DNA molecule itself. The DNA molecule will directly enjoy the benefits of the enzymes it codes, and not of others. This means other DNA molecules won't benefit from a positive mutation in a neighbouring molecule: this means that positive mutations give immediate and selective advantage to the replicator bearing it, and not on others. This is thought to have been the one of the main driving force of evolution of life as we know it. (Note. This is more a metaphor given for simplicity than complete accuracy, since the earliest molecules of life, probably up to the stage of cellular life, were most likely RNA molecules, acting both as replicators and enzymes: see RNA world hypothesis . But the core of the reasoning is the same.)

Biochemically, cell-like spheroids formed by proteinoids are observed by heating amino acids with phosphoric acid as a catalyst. They bear much of the basic features provided by cell membranes. Proteinoid-based protocells enclosing RNA molecules could (but not necessarily should) have been the first cellular life forms on Earth.

Origin of eukaryotic cells

The eukaryotic cell seems to have evolved from a symbiotic community of prokaryotic cells. It is almost certain that DNA-bearing organelles like the mitochondria and the chloroplasts are what remains of ancient symbiotic oxygen-breathing bacteria and cyanobacteria, respectively, where the rest of the cell seems to be derived from an ancestral archaean prokaryote cell – a theory termed the endosymbiotic theory.

There is still considerable debate on if organelles like the hydrogenosome predated the origin of mitochondria, or viceversa : see the hydrogen hypothesis for the origin of eukaryotic cells.


...I could exceedingly plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honeycomb...these pores or cells, were not very deep, but consisted of a great many little boxes... – Hooke describing his observations on a thin slice of cork.

See also

External links


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