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File:Cork Micrographia Hooke.png

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

The cell is the structural and functional unit of all known living organisms. It is the smallest unit of an organism that is classified as living, and is sometimes called the building block of life.[1] Some organisms, such as most bacteria, are unicellular (consist of a single cell). Other organisms, such as humans, are multicellular. (Humans have an estimated 100 trillion or 1014 cells; a typical cell size is 10 µm; a typical cell mass is 1 nanogram.) The largest known cell is an ostrich egg. In 1837 before the final cell theory was developed, a Czech Jan Evangelista Purkyně observed small "granules" while looking at the plant tissue through a microscope. The cell theory, first developed in 1839 by Matthias Jakob Schleiden and Theodor Schwann, states that all organisms are composed of one or more cells. All cells come from preexisting cells. Vital functions of an organism occur within cells, and all cells contain the hereditary information necessary for regulating cell functions and for transmitting information to the next generation of cells.[2]

The word cell comes from the Latin cellula, meaning, a small room. The descriptive name for the smallest living biological structure was chosen by Robert Hooke in a book he published in 1665 when he compared the cork cells he saw through his microscope to the small rooms monks lived in.[3]


Each cell is at least somewhat self-contained and self-maintaining: 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.


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

All cells have several different abilities:[4]

Some prokaryotic cells contain important internal membrane-bound compartments,[5] but eukaryotic cells have a specialized set of internal membrane compartments. Material is moved between these compartments by regulated traffic and transport of small spheres of membrane-bound material called vesicles.[6]

Anatomy of cellsEdit

There are two types of cells: eukaryotic and prokaryotic. Prokaryotic cells are usually independent, while eukaryotic cells are often found in multicellular organisms.

Prokaryotic cellsEdit

Main article: Prokaryote
File:Prokaryote cell diagram.svg

Prokaryotes differ from eukaryotes since they lack of a nuclear membrane and a cell nucleus. Prokaryotes also lack most of the intracellular organelles and structures that are seen in eukaryotic cells. There are two kinds of prokaryotes, bacteria and archaea, but these are similar in the overall structures of their cells. Most functions of organelles, such as mitochondria, chloroplasts, and the Golgi apparatus, are taken over by the prokaryotic cell's 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 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 (bacteria) and Thermoplasma (archaea)). This wall consists of peptidoglycan in bacteria, and acts as an additional barrier against exterior forces. It also prevents the cell from "exploding" (cytolysis) from osmotic pressure against a hypotonic environment. A cell wall is also present in some eukaryotes like plants (cellulose) and fungi, but has a different chemical composition.
  • 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 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.

Eukaryotic cellsEdit

Main article: Eukaryote
Biological cell

Diagram of a typical eukaryotic cell, showing subcellular components. 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 within centrosome

Eukaryotic cells are about 10 times the size of a typical prokaryote and can be as much as 1000 times greater in volume. The major 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 cell nucleus, a membrane-delineated compartment that houses the eukaryotic cell's DNA. It is this nucleus that gives the eukaryote its name, which means "true nucleus". Other differences include:

  • 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 associated with histone proteins. All chromosomal DNA is stored in the cell nucleus, separated from the cytoplasm by a membrane. Some eukaryotic organelles also contain some DNA.
  • Eukaryotes can move using cilia or flagella. The flagella are more complex than those of prokaryotes.
Table 1: Comparison of features of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells
  Prokaryotes Eukaryotes
Typical organisms bacteria, archaea protists, fungi, plants, animals
Typical size ~ 1-10 µm ~ 10-100 µm (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, lamellipodia
Mitochondria none one to several thousand (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 (fission or budding)
Table 2: Comparison of structures between animal and plant cells
Typical animal cell Typical plant cell
Additional structures

Subcellular componentsEdit


All cells, whether prokaryotic or eukaryotic, have a membrane that envelops the cell, separates its interior from its environment, regulates what moves in and out (selectively permeable), and maintains the electric potential of the cell. Inside the membrane, a salty cytoplasm takes up most of the cell volume. All cells possess DNA, the hereditary material of genes, and RNA, containing the information necessary to build various proteins such as enzymes, the cell's primary machinery. There are also other kinds of biomolecules in cells. This article will list these primary components of the cell, then briefly describe their function.

Cell membrane: A cell's defining boundaryEdit

Main article: Cell membrane

The cytoplasm of a cell is surrounded by a plasma membrane. The plasma membrane in plants and prokaryotes is usually covered by a cell wall. This membrane serves to separate and protect a cell from its surrounding environment and is made mostly from a double layer of lipids (hydrophobic fat-like molecules) and hydrophilic phosphorus molecules. Hence, the layer is called a phospholipid bilayer. It may also be called a fluid mosaic membrane. Embedded within this membrane is a variety of protein molecules that act as channels and pumps that move different molecules into and out of the cell. The membrane is said to be 'semi-permeable', in that it can either let a substance (molecule or ion) pass through freely, pass through to a limited extent or not pass through at all. Cell surface membranes also contain receptor proteins that allow cells to detect external signalling molecules such as hormones.

Cytoskeleton: A cell's scaffoldEdit

Main article: Cytoskeleton

The cytoskeleton 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 cytokinesis, the separation of daughter cells after cell division; and moves parts of the cell in processes of growth and mobility. The eukaryotic cytoskeleton is composed of microfilaments, intermediate filaments and microtubules. There is a great number of proteins associated with them, each controlling a cell's structure by directing, bundling, and aligning filaments. The prokaryotic cytoskeleton is less well-studied but is involved in the maintenance of cell shape, polarity and cytokinesis.[7]

Genetic materialEdit

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 some viruses (e.g., retroviruses) have RNA as their genetic material. The biological information contained in an organism is encoded in its DNA or RNA sequence. RNA is also used for information transport (e.g., mRNA) and enzymatic functions (e.g., ribosomal RNA) in organisms that use DNA for the genetic code itself.

Prokaryotic genetic material is organized in a simple circular DNA molecule (the bacterial chromosome) in the nucleoid region of the cytoplasm. Eukaryotic genetic material is divided into different, linear molecules called chromosomes inside a discrete nucleus, usually with additional genetic material in some organelles like mitochondria and chloroplasts (see endosymbiotic theory).

A human cell has genetic material in the nucleus (the nuclear genome) and in the mitochondria (the mitochondrial genome). In humans the nuclear genome is divided into 46 linear DNA molecules called chromosomes. The mitochondrial genome is a circular DNA molecule separate from the nuclear DNA. Although the mitochondrial genome is very small, it codes for some important proteins.

Foreign genetic material (most commonly DNA) can also be artificially introduced into the cell by a process called transfection. This can be transient, if the DNA is not inserted into the cell's genome, or stable, if it is.


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. Membrane-bound organelles are found only in eukaryotes.

Cell nucleus (a cell's information 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 spherical 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.
Diagram human cell nucleus no text
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 mitochondria contain their own genome that is separate and distinct from the nuclear genome of a cell, they play a critical role in generating energy in the eukaryotic cell, they give the cell energy by the process of respiration, adding oxygen to food (typicially pertaining to glucose and ATP) to release energy. Organelles that are modified chloroplasts are broadly called plastids, and are often involved in storage. Since they contain their own genome, they are thought to have once been separate organisms, which later formed a symbiotic relationship with the cells. Chloroplasts are the counter-part of the mitochondria. Instead of giving off CO2 and H2O Plants give off glucose, oxygen, 6 molecules of water (compared to 12 in respiration) this process is called photosynthesis.
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, which has ribosomes on its surface, and the smooth ER, which lacks them. Also the Golgi apparatus's ends "pinch" off and become new vacuoles in the animal cell.
Diagram of an endomembrane system
Ribosomes (the protein production centers in the cell) 
The ribosome is a large complex, composed of many molecules, in prokaryotes only exist floating freely in the cytosol, whereas in eukaryotes they can be found either free or bound to membranes.
Lysosomes and Peroxisomes (of the eukaryotic cell) 
The cell could not house such destructive enzymes if they were not contained in a membrane-bound system. These organelles are often called a "suicide bag" because of their ability to detonate and destroy the cell.
Centrosome (the cytoskeleton organiser) 
The centrosome produces the microtubules of a cell - a key component of the cytoskeleton. It directs the transport through the ER and the Golgi apparatus. Centrosomes are composed of two centrioles, which separate during cell division and help in the formation of the mitotic spindle. A single centrosome is present in the animal cells. They are also found in some fungi and algae cells.
Vacuoles store food and waste. Some vacuoles store extra water. They are often described as liquid filled space and are surrounded by a membrane. Some cells, most notably Amoeba, have contractile vacuoles, which are able to pump water out of the cell if there is too much water.

Cell functionsEdit

Cell growth and metabolismEdit

Main article: Cell growth

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, in which 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 Krebs cycle, or citric acid cycle, occurs inside the mitochondria and is capable of generating enough ATP to run all the cell functions.


An overview of protein synthesis.
Within the nucleus of the cell (light blue), genes (DNA, dark blue) are transcribed into RNA. This RNA is then subject to post-transcriptional modification and control, resulting in a mature mRNA (red) that is then transported out of the nucleus and into the cytoplasm (peach), where it undergoes translation into a protein. mRNA is translated by ribosomes (purple) that match the three-base codons of the mRNA to the three-base anti-codons of the appropriate tRNA. Newly-synthesized proteins (black) are often further modified, such as by binding to an effector molecule (orange), to become fully active.

Creation of new cellsEdit

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 synthesisEdit

Main article: Protein biosynthesis

Cells are capable of synthesizing new proteins, which are essential for the modulation and maintenance of cellular activities. This process involves the formation of new protein molecules from amino acid building blocks based on information encoded in DNA/RNA. Protein synthesis generally consists of two major steps: transcription and translation.

Transcription is the process where genetic information in DNA is used to produce a complementary RNA strand. This RNA strand is then processed to give messenger RNA (mRNA), which is free to migrate through the cell. mRNA molecules bind to protein-RNA complexes called ribosomes located in the cytosol, where they are translated into polypeptide sequences. The ribosome mediates the formation of a polypeptide sequence based on the mRNA sequence. The mRNA sequence directly relates to the polypeptide sequence by binding to transfer RNA (tRNA) adapter molecules in binding pockets within the ribosome. The new polypeptide then folds into a functional three-dimensional protein molecule.

Cell movement or motility Edit

Cell has the ability to move spontaneously during the process of wound healing, immune response and cancer metastasis. The fastest moving cells in the human body are the spermaculi, which enter and exit through the penis. This was proven when Professor Julia Ertmann of UCLA observed changes in the reproductive spermaculi in a lab environment (circa 2005). For wound healing to occur, white blood cells and cells that ingest bacteria move to the wound site to kill the microorganisms that cause infection. A the same time fibroblasts (connective tissue cells) move there to remodel damaged structures. In the case of tumor development, cells from a primary tumor move away and spread to other parts of the body. Cell motility involves many receptors, crosslinking, bundling, binding, adhesion, motor and other proteins.[8] The process is divided into three steps - protrusion of the leading edge of the cell, adhesion of the leading edge and deadhesion at the cell body and rear, and cytoskeletal contraction to pull the cell forward. Each of these steps is driven by physical forces generated by unique segments of the cytoskeleton. [9][10]

Origins of cellsEdit

Main article: Origin of life

The origin of cells has to do with the origin of life, and is one of the most important steps in the theory of evolution. The birth of the cell marked the passage from prebiotic chemistry to biological life.

Origin of the first cellEdit

For more information, RNA world hypothesis
For more information, Last universal ancestor

In a gene-centered view of evolution, life is regarded in terms of replicators—that is DNA molecules in the organism. In this paradigm, cells satisfy two fundamental conditions for the evolution of complexity. If freely-floating DNA molecules that code for enzymes are not enclosed in cells, the enzymes that benefit a given replicator (for example, by producing nucleotides) may do so less efficiently, and may in fact benefit competing replicators. If the entire DNA molecule of a replicator is enclosed in a cell, then the enzymes coded from the molecule will be kept close to the DNA molecule itself. The replicator will directly benefit from its encoded enzymes.

Biochemically, cell-like spheroids formed by proteinoids are observed by heating amino acids with phosphoric acid as a catalyst. They bear many of the basic features provided by cell membranes. Proteinoid-based protocells enclosing RNA molecules may have been the first cellular life forms on Earth. Some amphiphiles have the tendency to spontaneously form membranes in water. A spherically closed membrane contains water and is a hypothetical precursor to the modern cell membrane composed of proteins and phospholipid bilayer membranes.[11]

Origin of eukaryotic cellsEdit

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 proteobacteria 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 about whether organelles like the hydrogenosome predated the origin of mitochondria, or viceversa: see the hydrogen hypothesis for the origin of eukaryotic cells.

Sex, as the stereotyped choreography of meiosis and syngamy that persists in nearly all extant eukaryotes, may have played a role in the transition from prokaryotes to eukaryotes. An 'origin of sex as vaccination' theory suggests that the eukaryote genome accreted from prokaryan parasite genomes in numerous rounds of lateral gene transfer. Sex-as-syngamy (fusion sex) arose when infected hosts began swapping nuclearized genomes containing coevolved, vertically transmitted symbionts that conveyed protection against horizontal infection by more virulent symbionts.[12]



  1. Cell Movements and the Shaping of the Vertebrate Body in Chapter 21 of Molecular Biology of the Cell fourth edition, edited by Bruce Alberts (2002) published by Garland Science.
    The Alberts text discusses how the "cellular building blocks" move to shape developing embryos. It is also common to describe small molecules such as amino acids as "molecular building blocks".
  2. Maton, Anthea; Hopkins, Jean Johnson, Susan LaHart, David Quon Warner, Maryanna Wright, Jill D (1997). Cells Building Blocks of Life, New Jersy: Prentice Hall.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "... I could exceedingly plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, but that the pores of it were not regular [..] these pores, or cells, [..] were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this. . ." – Hooke describing his observations on a thin slice of cork. Robert Hooke
  4. The Universal Features of Cells on Earth in Chapter 1 of the Alberts textbook (reference #1, above).
  5. L.M., Mashburn-Warren, Whiteley, M. (2006). Special delivery: vesicle trafficking in prokaryotes.. Mol Microbiol 61 (4): 839-46.
  6. A. Rose, S. J. Schraegle, E. A. Stahlberg and I. Meier (2005) "Coiled-coil protein composition of 22 proteomes--differences and common themes in subcellular infrastructure and traffic control" in BMC evolutionary biology Vulume 5 article 66. Entrez PubMed 16288662
    Rose et al. suggest that coiled-coil alpha helical vesicle transport proteins are only found in eukaryotic organisms.
  7. Michie K, Löwe J (2006). Dynamic filaments of the bacterial cytoskeleton. Annu Rev Biochem 75: 467-92.
  9. Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J. et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4e. Garland Science. 2002
  10. Ananthakrishnan R, Ehrlicher A. The Forces Behind Cell Movement. Int J Biol Sci 2007; 3:303-317.
  11. Phospholipids
  12. Sterrer W (2002). On the origin of sex as vaccination. Journal of Theoretical Biology 216: 387-396.

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