This micrograph shows tissue surrounding several empty spaces. The epithelial tissue occurs at the border between the rest of the tissue and the empty spaces. The normal epithelium is composed of rectangular-shaped cells neatly organized side by side. Dark purple nuclei are clear at the bottom of the epithelial cells, where they attach to the rest of the tissue. The abnormal epithelium appears as a tangled area of purple nuclei, much thicker than the normal epithelium although no distinct cells are discernible.

Figure 4.1. Micrograph of Cervical Tissue
This figure is a view of the regular architecture of normal tissue contrasted with the irregular arrangement of cancerous cells. (credit: “Haymanj”/Wikimedia Commons)


Learning Objectives

  • Identify the 4 main tissue types and discuss their roles in the human body
  • Identify major tissue membranes and the characteristics of each that make them functional
  • Explain the functions of various epithelial tissues and how their forms enable their functions
  • Explain the functions of various connective tissues and how their forms enable their functions
  • Describe the characteristics of muscle tissue and how these enable function
  • Discuss the characteristics of nervous tissue and how these enable information processing and control of muscular and glandular activities

The body contains at least 200 distinct cell types. These cells contain essentially the same internal structures yet they vary enormously in shape and function. The different types of cells are not randomly distributed throughout the body; rather they occur in organized layers, a level of organization referred to as tissue. The micrograph that opens this chapter shows the high degree of organization among different types of cells in the tissue of the cervix. You can also see how that organization breaks down when cancer takes over the regular mitotic functioning of a cell.

The variety in shape reflects the many different roles that cells fulfill in your body. The human body starts as a single cell at fertilization. As this fertilized egg divides, it gives rise to trillions of cells, each built from the same blueprint, but organizing into tissues and becoming irreversibly committed to a developmental pathway.

Types of Tissues

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the four main tissue types
  • Discuss the functions of each tissue type
  • Relate the structure of each tissue type to their function
  • Identify the main types of tissue membranes

The term tissue is used to describe a group of cells found together in the body. The cells within a tissue share a common embryonic origin. Microscopic observation reveals that the cells in a tissue share morphological features and are arranged in an orderly pattern that achieves the tissue’s functions. From the evolutionary perspective, tissues appear in more complex organisms. For example, multicellular protists, ancient eukaryotes, do not have cells organized into tissues.

Although there are many types of cells in the human body, they are organized into four broad categories of tissues: epithelial, connective, muscle, and nervous. Each of these categories is characterized by specific functions that contribute to the overall health and maintenance of the body. A disruption of the structure is a sign of injury or disease. Such changes can be detected through histology, the microscopic study of tissue appearance, organization, and function.

The Four Types of Tissues

Epithelial tissue, also referred to as epithelium, refers to the sheets of cells that cover exterior surfaces of the body, lines internal cavities and passageways, and forms certain glands. Connective tissue, as its name implies, binds the cells and organs of the body together and functions in the protection, support, and integration of all parts of the body. Muscle tissue is excitable, responding to stimulation and contracting to provide movement, and occurs as three major types: skeletal (voluntary) muscle, smooth muscle, and cardiac muscle in the heart. Nervous tissue is also excitable, allowing the propagation of electrochemical signals in the form of nerve impulses that communicate between different regions of the body (Figure 4.2).

The next level of organization is the organ, where several types of tissues come together to form a working unit. Just as knowing the structure and function of cells helps you in your study of tissues, knowledge of tissues will help you understand how organs function. The epithelial and connective tissues are discussed in detail in this chapter. Muscle and nervous tissues will be discussed only briefly in this chapter.

This diagram shows the silhouette of a female surrounded by four micrographs of tissue. Each micrograph has arrows pointing to the organs where that tissue is found. The upper left micrograph shows nervous tissue that is whitish with several large, purple, irregularly-shaped neurons embedded throughout. Nervous tissue is found in the brain, spinal cord and nerves. The upper right micrograph shows muscle tissue that is red with elongated cells and prominent, purple nuclei. Cardiac muscle is found in the heart. Smooth muscle is found in muscular internal organs, such as the stomach. Skeletal muscle is found in parts that are moved voluntarily, such as the arms. The lower left micrograph shows epithelial tissue. This tissue is purple with many round, purple cells with dark purple nuclei. Epithelial tissue is found in the lining of GI tract organs and other hollow organs such as the small intestine. Epithelial tissue also composes the outer layer of the skin, known as the epidermis. Finally, the lower right micrograph shows connective tissue, which is composed of very loosely packed purple cells and fibers. There are large open spaces between clumps of cells and fibers. Connective tissue is found in the leg within fat and other soft padding tissue as well as bones and tendons.
Figure 4.2. Four Types of Tissue: Body
The four types of tissues are exemplified in nervous tissue, stratified squamous epithelial tissue, cardiac muscle tissue, and connective tissue in small intestine. Clockwise from nervous tissue, LM × 872, LM × 282, LM × 460, LM × 800. (Micrographs provided by the Regents of University of Michigan Medical School © 2012)