Introduction to the Study of Cells

Cells as the Basic Unit of Life

A cell is the smallest unit of a living thing and is the basic building block of all organisms.

Learning Objectives

State the general characteristics of a cell

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A living thing can be composed of either one cell or many cells.
  • There are two broad categories of cells: prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells.
  • Cells can be highly specialized with specific functions and characteristics.

Key Terms

  • prokaryotic: Small cells in the domains Bacteria and Archaea that do not contain a membrane-bound nucleus or other membrane-bound organelles.
  • eukaryotic: Having complex cells in which the genetic material is contained within membrane-bound nuclei.
  • cell: The basic unit of a living organism, consisting of a quantity of protoplasm surrounded by a cell membrane, which is able to synthesize proteins and replicate itself.

Close your eyes and picture a brick wall. What is the basic building block of that wall? A single brick, of course. Like a brick wall, your body is composed of basic building blocks, and the building blocks of your body are cells.

Cells as Building Blocks

A cell is the smallest unit of a living thing. A living thing, whether made of one cell (like bacteria) or many cells (like a human), is called an organism. Thus, cells are the basic building blocks of all organisms. Several cells of one kind that interconnect with each other and perform a shared function form tissues; several tissues combine to form an organ (your stomach, heart, or brain); and several organs make up an organ system (such as the digestive system, circulatory system, or nervous system). Several systems that function together form an organism (like a human being). There are many types of cells all grouped into one of two broad categories: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. For example, both animal and plant cells are classified as eukaryotic cells, whereas bacterial cells are classified as prokaryotic.

Types of Specialized Cells

Your body has many kinds of cells, each specialized for a specific purpose. Just as a home is made from a variety of building materials, the human body is constructed from many cell types. For example, epithelial cells protect the surface of the body and cover the organs and body cavities within. Bone cells help to support and protect the body. Cells of the immune system fight invading bacteria. Additionally, blood and blood cells carry nutrients and oxygen throughout the body while removing carbon dioxide. Each of these cell types plays a vital role during the growth, development, and day-to-day maintenance of the body. In spite of their enormous variety, however, cells from all organisms—even ones as diverse as bacteria, onion, and human—share certain fundamental characteristics.


Various Cell Types: (a) Nasal sinus cells (viewed with a light microscope), (b) onion cells (viewed with a light microscope), and (c) Vibrio tasmaniensis bacterial cells (seen through a scanning electron microscope) are from very different organisms, yet all share certain characteristics of basic cell structure.