Studying 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.

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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.

Microscopy

Microscopes allow for magnification and visualization of cells and cellular components that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast light and electron microscopy.

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Light microscopes allow for magnification of an object approximately up to 400-1000 times depending on whether the high power or oil immersion objective is used.
  • Light microscopes use visible light which passes and bends through the lens system.
  • Electron microscopes use a beam of electrons, opposed to visible light, for magnification.
  • Electron microscopes allow for higher magnification in comparison to a light microscope thus, allowing for visualization of cell internal structures.

Key Terms

  • resolution: The degree of fineness with which an image can be recorded or produced, often expressed as the number of pixels per unit of length (typically an inch).
  • electron: The subatomic particle having a negative charge and orbiting the nucleus; the flow of electrons in a conductor constitutes electricity.

Microscopy

Cells vary in size. With few exceptions, individual cells cannot be seen with the naked eye, so scientists use microscopes (micro- = “small”; -scope = “to look at”) to study them. A microscope is an instrument that magnifies an object. Most photographs of cells are taken with a microscope; these images can also be called micrographs.

The optics of a microscope’s lenses change the orientation of the image that the user sees. A specimen that is right-side up and facing right on the microscope slide will appear upside-down and facing left when viewed through a microscope, and vice versa. Similarly, if the slide is moved left while looking through the microscope, it will appear to move right, and if moved down, it will seem to move up. This occurs because microscopes use two sets of lenses to magnify the image. Because of the manner by which light travels through the lenses, this system of two lenses produces an inverted image (binocular, or dissecting microscopes, work in a similar manner, but they include an additional magnification system that makes the final image appear to be upright).

Light Microscopes

To give you a sense of cell size, a typical human red blood cell is about eight millionths of a meter or eight micrometers (abbreviated as eight μm) in diameter; the head of a pin of is about two thousandths of a meter (two mm) in diameter. That means about 250 red blood cells could fit on the head of a pin.

Most student microscopes are classified as light microscopes. Visible light passes and is bent through the lens system to enable the user to see the specimen. Light microscopes are advantageous for viewing living organisms, but since individual cells are generally transparent, their components are not distinguishable unless they are colored with special stains. Staining, however, usually kills the cells.

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Light and Electron Microscopes: (a) Most light microscopes used in a college biology lab can magnify cells up to approximately 400 times and have a resolution of about 200 nanometers. (b) Electron microscopes provide a much higher magnification, 100,000x, and a have a resolution of 50 picometers.

Light microscopes, commonly used in undergraduate college laboratories, magnify up to approximately 400 times. Two parameters that are important in microscopy are magnification and resolving power. Magnification is the process of enlarging an object in appearance. Resolving power is the ability of a microscope to distinguish two adjacent structures as separate: the higher the resolution, the better the clarity and detail of the image. When oil immersion lenses are used for the study of small objects, magnification is usually increased to 1,000 times. In order to gain a better understanding of cellular structure and function, scientists typically use electron microscopes.

Electron Microscopes

In contrast to light microscopes, electron microscopes use a beam of electrons instead of a beam of light. Not only does this allow for higher magnification and, thus, more detail, it also provides higher resolving power. The method used to prepare the specimen for viewing with an electron microscope kills the specimen. Electrons have short wavelengths (shorter than photons) that move best in a vacuum, so living cells cannot be viewed with an electron microscope.

In a scanning electron microscope, a beam of electrons moves back and forth across a cell’s surface, creating details of cell surface characteristics. In a transmission electron microscope, the electron beam penetrates the cell and provides details of a cell’s internal structures. As you might imagine, electron microscopes are significantly more bulky and expensive than light microscopes.

Cell Theory

Cell theory states that living things are composed of one or more cells, that the cell is the basic unit of life, and that cells arise from existing cells.

Learning Objectives

Identify the components of cell theory

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The cell theory describes the basic properties of all cells.
  • The three scientists that contributed to the development of cell theory are Matthias Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, and Rudolf Virchow.
  • A component of the cell theory is that all living things are composed of one or more cells.
  • A component of the cell theory is that the cell is the basic unit of life.
  • A component of the cell theory is that all new cells arise from existing cells.

Key Terms

  • cell theory: The scientific theory that all living organisms are made of cells as the smallest functional unit.

Cell Theory

The microscopes we use today are far more complex than those used in the 1600s by Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch shopkeeper who had great skill in crafting lenses. Despite the limitations of his now-ancient lenses, van Leeuwenhoek observed the movements of protista (a type of single-celled organism) and sperm, which he collectively termed “animalcules. ”

In a 1665 publication called Micrographia, experimental scientist Robert Hooke coined the term “cell” for the box-like structures he observed when viewing cork tissue through a lens. In the 1670s, van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria and protozoa. Later advances in lenses, microscope construction, and staining techniques enabled other scientists to see some components inside cells.

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Structure of an Animal Cell: The cell is the basic unit of life and the study of the cell led to the development of the cell theory.

By the late 1830s, botanist Matthias Schleiden and zoologist Theodor Schwann were studying tissues and proposed the unified cell theory. The unified cell theory states that: all living things are composed of one or more cells; the cell is the basic unit of life; and new cells arise from existing cells. Rudolf Virchow later made important contributions to this theory.

Schleiden and Schwann proposed spontaneous generation as the method for cell origination, but spontaneous generation (also called abiogenesis) was later disproven. Rudolf Virchow famously stated “Omnis cellula e cellula”… “All cells only arise from pre-existing cells. “The parts of the theory that did not have to do with the origin of cells, however, held up to scientific scrutiny and are widely agreed upon by the scientific community today. The generally accepted portions of the modern Cell Theory are as follows:

  1. The cell is the fundamental unit of structure and function in living things.
  2. All organisms are made up of one or more cells.
  3. Cells arise from other cells through cellular division.

The expanded version of the cell theory can also include:

  • Cells carry genetic material passed to daughter cells during cellular division
  • All cells are essentially the same in chemical composition
  • Energy flow (metabolism and biochemistry) occurs within cells

Cell Size

Cell size is limited in accordance with the ratio of cell surface area to volume.

Learning Objectives

Describe the factors limiting cell size and the adaptations cells make to overcome the surface area to volume issue

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • As a cell grows, its volume increases much more rapidly than its surface area. Since the surface of the cell is what allows the entry of oxygen, large cells cannot get as much oxygen as they would need to support themselves.
  • As animals increase in size they require specialized organs that effectively increase the surface area available for exchange processes.

Key Terms

  • surface area: The total area on the surface of an object.

At 0.1 to 5.0 μm in diameter, prokaryotic cells are significantly smaller than eukaryotic cells, which have diameters ranging from 10 to 100 μm. The small size of prokaryotes allows ions and organic molecules that enter them to quickly diffuse to other parts of the cell. Similarly, any wastes produced within a prokaryotic cell can quickly diffuse out. This is not the case in eukaryotic cells, which have developed different structural adaptations to enhance intracellular transport.

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Relative Size of Atoms to Humans: This figure shows relative sizes on a logarithmic scale (recall that each unit of increase in a logarithmic scale represents a 10-fold increase in the quantity being measured).

In general, small size is necessary for all cells, whether prokaryotic or eukaryotic. Consider the area and volume of a typical cell. Not all cells are spherical in shape, but most tend to approximate a sphere. The formula for the surface area of a sphere is 4πr2, while the formula for its volume is 4πr3/3. As the radius of a cell increases, its surface area increases as the square of its radius, but its volume increases as the cube of its radius (much more rapidly).

Therefore, as a cell increases in size, its surface area-to-volume ratio decreases. This same principle would apply if the cell had the shape of a cube (below). If the cell grows too large, the plasma membrane will not have sufficient surface area to support the rate of diffusion required for the increased volume. In other words, as a cell grows, it becomes less efficient. One way to become more efficient is to divide; another way is to develop organelles that perform specific tasks. These adaptations lead to the development of more sophisticated cells called eukaryotic cells.

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Surface Area to Volume Ratios: Notice that as a cell increases in size, its surface area-to-volume ratio decreases. When there is insufficient surface area to support a cell’s increasing volume, a cell will either divide or die. The cell on the left has a volume of 1 mm3 and a surface area of 6 mm2, with a surface area-to-volume ratio of 6 to 1, whereas the cell on the right has a volume of 8 mm3 and a surface area of 24 mm2, with a surface area-to-volume ratio of 3 to 1.

Smaller single-celled organisms have a high surface area to volume ratio, which allows them to rely on oxygen and material diffusing into the cell (and wastes diffusing out) in order to survive. The higher the surface area to volume ratio they have, the more effective this process can be. Larger animals require specialized organs (lungs, kidneys, intestines, etc.) that effectively increase the surface area available for exchange processes, and a circulatory system to move material and heat energy between the surface and the core of the organism.

Increased volume can lead to biological problems. King Kong, the fictional giant gorilla, would have insufficient lung surface area to meet his oxygen needs, and could not survive. For small organisms with their high surface area to volume ratio, friction and fluid dynamics (wind, water flow) are relatively much more important, and gravity much less important, than for large animals.

However, increased surface area can cause problems as well. More contact with the environment through the surface of a cell or an organ (relative to its volume) increases loss of water and dissolved substances. High surface area to volume ratios also present problems of temperature control in unfavorable environments.