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  • Cell Structure and Functions
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Cell the Unit of Life

Cell is the fundamental structural and functional unit of all living organisms.

Anton Von Leeuwenhoek first saw and described a live cell. Robert Brown later discovered the nucleus. The invention of the microscope and its improvement leading to the electron microscope revealed all the structural details of the cell.

Electron microscope: This was developed by M. Knoll and E. Ruska (1931) in Germany. It is a large sized instrument which has an internal vacuum, high voltage (50,000 - 1,00,000 volts), a cooling system, a fast beam of electrons (0.54 A wavelength), a cathod filaments of tungsten and electromagnetic lens (which having a coil of wire enclosed in soft iron casing) for focusing.

Electron microscope can magnify the objects upto 2,00,000 times (now possible upto 2,50,000 - 4,00,000) and direct study of objects is possible or this microscope. The resolving power of electron microscope is 10 A which is 100 times more than the light microscope. Study of living cells can not be done through this microscope because of high voltage, which is required to operate it, kills the living materials. Electron microscope are of two types:

(i)     Transmission electron microscope (TEM): It was the first microscope developed by Ruska (1932)

It produces two dimensional images.

(ii)    Scanning electron microscope (SEM): This microscope was invented by Knoll (1935).

It gives three dimensional image.


In 1838, Malthias Schleiden, a German botanist, examined a large number of plants and observed that all plants are composed of different kinds of cells which form the tissues of the plant.

Theodore Schwarm (1839), a British Zoologist, studied different types of animal cells and reported that cells had a thin outer layer which is today known as the 'plasma membrane'. He also concluded, based on his studies on plant tissues, that the presence of cell wall is a unique character of the plant cells. On the basis of this, Schwann proposed the hypothesis that the bodies of animals and plants are composed of cells and products of cells.

Schleiden and Schwann together formulated the cell theory. This theory however, did not explain as to how new cells were formed.

Rudolf Virchow (1855) first explained that cells divided and new cells are formed from pre-existing cells (Omnis cellula-e cellula). He modified the hypothesis of Schleiden and Schwann to give the cell theory a final shape. Cell theory as understood today is:

All living organisms are composed of cells and products of cells.

All cells arise from pre-existing cells.


Inside each cell is a dense membrane bound structure called nucleus. This nucleus contains the chromosomes which in turn contain the genetic material, DNA.

Cells that have membrane bound nuclei are called eukaryotic whereas cells that lack a membrane bound nucleus are prokaryotic. In both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, a semi-fluid matrix called cytoplasm occupies the volume of the cell. The cytoplasm is the main arena of cellular activities in both the plant and animal cells. Various chemica reactions occur in it to keep the cell in the 'living state',

Besides the nucleus, the eukaryotic cells have other membrane bound distinct structures called organelles like the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), the golgi complex, Iysosornes mitochondria microbodies and vacuoles. The prokaryotic cells lack such membrane bound organelles.

Ribosomes are non-membrane bound organelles found in all cells - both eukaryotic as well as prokaryotic. Within the cell, ribosomes are found not only in the cytoplasm but also within the two organelles - chloroplasts (in plants) and mitochondria and on rough ER.

Animal cells contain another non-membrane bound organelle called centriole which helps in cell division.

Cells differ greatly in size, shape and activities.

For example, Mycoplasmas, the smallest cells, are only 0.3 mm in length while bacteria could be 3 to 5 mm. The largest isolated single cell is the egg of an ostrich.

Among multicellular organisms, human red blood cells are about 7.0 mm in diameter. Nerve cells are some of the longest cells. Cells also vary greatly in their shape. They may be disc-like, polygonal, columnar, cuboid, thread like, or even irregular. The shape of the cell may vary with the function they perform.


The prokaryotic cells are represented by bacteria, blue-green algae, mycoplasma and PPLO (Pleuro Pneumonia Like Organisms). They are generally smaller and multiply more rapidly than the eukaryotic cells.

The four basic shapes of bacteria are bacillus (rod. like), coccus (spherical), vibrio (comma shaped) and spirillum (spiral).

All prokaryotes have a cell wall surrounding the cell membrane, The fluid matrix filling the cell is the cytoplasm. There is no well-defined nucleus. The genetic material is basically naked, not enveloped by a nuclear membrane. In addition to the genomic DNA (the single chromosome/ circular DNA), marty bacteria have small circular DNA outside the genomic DNA. These smaller DNA are called plasmids. The plasmid DNA confers certain unique phenotypic characters to such bacteria. One such character is resistance to antibiotics.

Plasmid DNA is used to monitor bacterial transformation with foreign DNA.

Nuclear membrane is found in eukaryotes. No organelles, like the ones in eukaryotes, are found in prokaryotic cells except for ribosomes.

A specialised differentiated form of cell membrane called mesosome is the characteristic of prokaryotes. They are essentially in foldings of cell membrane.


The cell envelope consists of a tightly bound three layered structure i.e., the outermost glycocalyx followed by the cell wall and then the plasma membrane. Although each layer of the envelope performs distinct function, they act together as a single protective- unit.

Bacteria can be classified into two groups on the basis of the differences in the cell envelopes and the manner in which they respond to the staining procedure developed by Gram viz., those that take up the gram stain are Gram positive and the others that do not are called Gram negative bacteria.

Glycocalyx differs in composition and thickness among different bacteria. It could be a loose sheath called the slime layer in some, while in others it may be thick and tough, called the capsule. The cell wall determines the shape of the cell and provides a strong structural support to prevent the bacterium from bursting or collapsing.

The plasma membrane is semi-permeable in nature and interacts with the outside world. This membrane is similar structurally to that of the eukaryotes.

A special membranous structure is the mesosome which is formed by the extensions of plasma membrane into the cell. These extensions are in the form of vesicles, tubules and lamellae. They help in cell wall formation, DNA replication and distribution to daughter cells. They also help in respiration, secretion processes, to increase the surface area of the plasma membrane and enzymatic content. In some prokaryotes like cyanobacteria, there are other membranous extensions into the cytoplasm called chromatophores which contain pigments.

Bacterial cells may be motile or non-motile. If motile, they have thin filamentous extensions from their cell wall called flagella. Bacteria show a range in the number and arrangement of flagella. Bacterial flagellum is composed of three parts - filament, hook and basal body. The filament is the longest portion and extends from the cell surface to the outside.

Besides flagella, Pili and Fimbriae are also surface structures of the bacteria but do not play a role in motility. The pili are elongated tubular structures made of a special protein. The fimbriae are small bristle like fibres sprouting out of the cell. In some bacteria, they are known to help attach the bacteria to rocks in streams and also to the host tissues.


In prokaryotes ribosomes are associated with the plasma membrane of the cell. They are about 15 nm by 20 nm in size and are made of two subunits – 50S and 30S units which when present together form 70S prokaryotic ribosomes.

Ribosomes are the site of protein synthesis.

Several ribosomes may attach to a single mRNA and form a chain called polyribosomes or polysome. The ribosomes of a polysome translate the mRNA into proteins.

Reserve material in prokaryotic cells are stored in the cytoplasm in the form of inclusion bodies. These are not bounded by any membrane system and lie free in the cytoplasm, e.g., phosphate granules, cyanophycean granules and glycogen granules. Gas vacuoles are found in blue green and purple and green photosynthetic bacteria.


The eukaryotes include all the protists, plants, animals and fungi.

Eukaryotic cells possess an organised nucleus with a nuclear envelope. In addition, eukaryotic cells have a variety of complex locomotory and cytoskeletal structures. Their genetic material is organised into chromosomes.

All eukaryotic cells are not identical. Plant and animal cells are different as the former possess cell walls, plastids and a large central vacuole which are absent in animal cells. On the other hand, animal cells have centrioles which are absent in almost all plant cells.

  • Topics Covered


Cell Envelope


Endomembrane system I


Endomembrane system II

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