Animal Cells versus Plant Cells

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify key organelles present only in plant cells, including chloroplasts and central vacuoles
  • Identify key organelles present only in animal cells, including centrosomes and lysosomes

At this point, it should be clear that eukaryotic cells have a more complex structure than do prokaryotic cells. Organelles allow for various functions to occur in the cell at the same time. Despite their fundamental similarities, there are some striking differences between animal and plant cells (see Figure 1).

Animal cells have centrosomes (or a pair of centrioles), and lysosomes, whereas plant cells do not. Plant cells have a cell wall, chloroplasts, plasmodesmata, and plastids used for storage, and a large central vacuole, whereas animal cells do not.

Practice Question

Part a: This illustration shows a typical eukaryotic cell, which is egg shaped. The fluid inside the cell is called the cytoplasm, and the cell is surrounded by a cell membrane. The nucleus takes up about one-half of the width of the cell. Inside the nucleus is the chromatin, which is comprised of DNA and associated proteins. A region of the chromatin is condensed into the nucleolus, a structure in which ribosomes are synthesized. The nucleus is encased in a nuclear envelope, which is perforated by protein-lined pores that allow entry of material into the nucleus. The nucleus is surrounded by the rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum, or ER. The smooth ER is the site of lipid synthesis. The rough ER has embedded ribosomes that give it a bumpy appearance. It synthesizes membrane and secretory proteins. Besides the ER, many other organelles float inside the cytoplasm. These include the Golgi apparatus, which modifies proteins and lipids synthesized in the ER. The Golgi apparatus is made of layers of flat membranes. Mitochondria, which produce energy for the cell, have an outer membrane and a highly folded inner membrane. Other, smaller organelles include peroxisomes that metabolize waste, lysosomes that digest food, and vacuoles. Ribosomes, responsible for protein synthesis, also float freely in the cytoplasm and are depicted as small dots. The last cellular component shown is the cytoskeleton, which has four different types of components: microfilaments, intermediate filaments, microtubules, and centrosomes. Microfilaments are fibrous proteins that line the cell membrane and make up the cellular cortex. Intermediate filaments are fibrous proteins that hold organelles in place. Microtubules form the mitotic spindle and maintain cell shape. Centrosomes are made of two tubular structures at right angles to one another. They form the microtubule-organizing center. Part b: This illustration depicts a typical eukaryotic plant cell. The nucleus of a plant cell contains chromatin and a nucleolus, the same as in an animal cell. Other structures that a plant cell has in common with an animal cell include rough and smooth ER, the Golgi apparatus, mitochondria, peroxisomes, and ribosomes. The fluid inside the plant cell is called the cytoplasm, just as in an animal cell. The plant cell has three of the four cytoskeletal components found in animal cells: microtubules, intermediate filaments, and microfilaments. Plant cells do not have centrosomes. Plants have five structures not found in animals cells: plasmodesmata, chloroplasts, plastids, a central vacuole, and a cell wall. Plasmodesmata form channels between adjacent plant cells. Chloroplasts are responsible for photosynthesis; they have an outer membrane, an inner membrane, and stack of membranes inside the inner membrane. The central vacuole is a very large, fluid-filled structure that maintains pressure against the cell wall. Plastids store pigments. The cell wall is localized outside the cell membrane.

Figure 1. (a) A typical animal cell and (b) a typical plant cell.

What structures does a plant cell have that an animal cell does not have? What structures does an animal cell have that a plant cell does not have?

Plant Cells

The Cell Wall

In Figure 1b, the diagram of a plant cell, you see a structure external to the plasma membrane called the cell wall. The cell wall is a rigid covering that protects the cell, provides structural support, and gives shape to the cell. Fungal cells and some protist cells also have cell walls.

While the chief component of prokaryotic cell walls is peptidoglycan, the major organic molecule in the plant cell wall is cellulose (Figure 2), a polysaccharide made up of long, straight chains of glucose units. When nutritional information refers to dietary fiber, it is referring to the cellulose content of food.

This illustration shows three glucose subunits that are attached together. Dashed lines at each end indicate that many more subunits make up an entire cellulose fiber. Each glucose subunit is a closed ring composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms.

Figure 2. Cellulose is a long chain of β-glucose molecules connected by a 1–4 linkage. The dashed lines at each end of the figure indicate a series of many more glucose units. The size of the page makes it impossible to portray an entire cellulose molecule.


This illustration shows a chloroplast, which has an outer membrane and an inner membrane. The space between the outer and inner membranes is called the intermembrane space. Inside the inner membrane are flat, pancake-like structures called thylakoids. The thylakoids form stacks called grana. The liquid inside the inner membrane is called the stroma, and the space inside the thylakoid is called the thylakoid space.

Figure 3. This simplified diagram of a chloroplast shows the outer membrane, inner membrane, thylakoids, grana, and stroma.

Like mitochondria, chloroplasts also have their own DNA and ribosomes. Chloroplasts function in photosynthesis and can be found in photoautotrophic eukaryotic cells such as plants and algae. In photosynthesis, carbon dioxide, water, and light energy are used to make glucose and oxygen. This is the major difference between plants and animals: Plants (autotrophs) are able to make their own food, like glucose, whereas animals (heterotrophs) must rely on other organisms for their organic compounds or food source.

Like mitochondria, chloroplasts have outer and inner membranes, but within the space enclosed by a chloroplast’s inner membrane is a set of interconnected and stacked, fluid-filled membrane sacs called thylakoids (Figure 3). Each stack of thylakoids is called a granum (plural = grana). The fluid enclosed by the inner membrane and surrounding the grana is called the stroma.

The chloroplasts contain a green pigment called chlorophyll, which captures the energy of sunlight for photosynthesis. Like plant cells, photosynthetic protists also have chloroplasts. Some bacteria also perform photosynthesis, but they do not have chloroplasts. Their photosynthetic pigments are located in the thylakoid membrane within the cell itself.


We have mentioned that both mitochondria and chloroplasts contain DNA and ribosomes. Have you wondered why? Strong evidence points to endosymbiosis as the explanation.

Symbiosis is a relationship in which organisms from two separate species live in close association and typically exhibit specific adaptations to each other. Endosymbiosis (endo-= within) is a relationship in which one organism lives inside the other. Endosymbiotic relationships abound in nature. Microbes that produce vitamin K live inside the human gut. This relationship is beneficial for us because we are unable to synthesize vitamin K. It is also beneficial for the microbes because they are protected from other organisms and are provided a stable habitat and abundant food by living within the large intestine.

Scientists have long noticed that bacteria, mitochondria, and chloroplasts are similar in size. We also know that mitochondria and chloroplasts have DNA and ribosomes, just as bacteria do. Scientists believe that host cells and bacteria formed a mutually beneficial endosymbiotic relationship when the host cells ingested aerobic bacteria and cyanobacteria but did not destroy them. Through evolution, these ingested bacteria became more specialized in their functions, with the aerobic bacteria becoming mitochondria and the photosynthetic bacteria becoming chloroplasts.

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The Central Vacuole

Previously, we mentioned vacuoles as essential components of plant cells. If you look at Figure 1b, you will see that plant cells each have a large, central vacuole that occupies most of the cell. The central vacuole plays a key role in regulating the cell’s concentration of water in changing environmental conditions. In plant cells, the liquid inside the central vacuole provides turgor pressure, which is the outward pressure caused by the fluid inside the cell. Have you ever noticed that if you forget to water a plant for a few days, it wilts? That is because as the water concentration in the soil becomes lower than the water concentration in the plant, water moves out of the central vacuoles and cytoplasm and into the soil. As the central vacuole shrinks, it leaves the cell wall unsupported. This loss of support to the cell walls of a plant results in the wilted appearance. When the central vacuole is filled with water, it provides a low energy means for the plant cell to expand (as opposed to expending energy to actually increase in size). Additionally, this fluid can deter herbivory since the bitter taste of the wastes it contains discourages consumption by insects and animals. The central vacuole also functions to store proteins in developing seed cells.

Animal Cells


In this illustration, a eukaryotic cell is shown consuming a bacterium. As the bacterium is consumed, it is encapsulated into a vesicle. The vesicle fuses with a lysosome, and proteins inside the lysosome digest the bacterium.

Figure 4. A macrophage has phagocytized a potentially pathogenic bacterium into a vesicle, which then fuses with a lysosome within the cell so that the pathogen can be destroyed. Other organelles are present in the cell, but for simplicity, are not shown.

In animal cells, the lysosomes are the cell’s “garbage disposal.” Digestive enzymes within the lysosomes aid the breakdown of proteins, polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids, and even worn-out organelles. In single-celled eukaryotes, lysosomes are important for digestion of the food they ingest and the recycling of organelles. These enzymes are active at a much lower pH (more acidic) than those located in the cytoplasm. Many reactions that take place in the cytoplasm could not occur at a low pH, thus the advantage of compartmentalizing the eukaryotic cell into organelles is apparent.

Lysosomes also use their hydrolytic enzymes to destroy disease-causing organisms that might enter the cell. A good example of this occurs in a group of white blood cells called macrophages, which are part of your body’s immune system. In a process known as phagocytosis, a section of the plasma membrane of the macrophage invaginates (folds in) and engulfs a pathogen. The invaginated section, with the pathogen inside, then pinches itself off from the plasma membrane and becomes a vesicle. The vesicle fuses with a lysosome. The lysosome’s hydrolytic enzymes then destroy the pathogen (Figure 4).

Extracellular Matrix of Animal Cells

This illustration shows the plasma membrane. Embedded in the plasma membrane are integral membrane proteins called integrins. On the exterior of the cell is a vast network of collagen fibers, which are attached to the integrins via a protein called fibronectin. Proteoglycan complexes also extend from the plasma membrane into the extracellular matrix. A magnified view shows that each proteoglycan complex is composed of a polysaccharide core. Proteins branch from this core, and carbohydrates branch from the proteins. The inside of the cytoplasmic membrane is lined with microfilaments of the cytoskeleton.

Figure 5. The extracellular matrix consists of a network of substances secreted by cells.

Most animal cells release materials into the extracellular space. The primary components of these materials are glycoproteins and the protein collagen. Collectively, these materials are called the extracellular matrix (Figure 5). Not only does the extracellular matrix hold the cells together to form a tissue, but it also allows the cells within the tissue to communicate with each other.

Blood clotting provides an example of the role of the extracellular matrix in cell communication. When the cells lining a blood vessel are damaged, they display a protein receptor called tissue factor. When tissue factor binds with another factor in the extracellular matrix, it causes platelets to adhere to the wall of the damaged blood vessel, stimulates adjacent smooth muscle cells in the blood vessel to contract (thus constricting the blood vessel), and initiates a series of steps that stimulate the platelets to produce clotting factors.

Intercellular Junctions

Cells can also communicate with each other by direct contact, referred to as intercellular junctions. There are some differences in the ways that plant and animal cells do this. Plasmodesmata (singular = plasmodesma) are junctions between plant cells, whereas animal cell contacts include tight and gap junctions, and desmosomes.

In general, long stretches of the plasma membranes of neighboring plant cells cannot touch one another because they are separated by the cell walls surrounding each cell. Plasmodesmata are numerous channels that pass between the cell walls of adjacent plant cells, connecting their cytoplasm and enabling signal molecules and nutrients to be transported from cell to cell (Figure 6a).

A tight junction is a watertight seal between two adjacent animal cells (Figure 6b). Proteins hold the cells tightly against each other. This tight adhesion prevents materials from leaking between the cells. Tight junctions are typically found in the epithelial tissue that lines internal organs and cavities, and composes most of the skin. For example, the tight junctions of the epithelial cells lining the urinary bladder prevent urine from leaking into the extracellular space.

Also found only in animal cells are desmosomes, which act like spot welds between adjacent epithelial cells (Figure 6c). They keep cells together in a sheet-like formation in organs and tissues that stretch, like the skin, heart, and muscles.

Gap junctions in animal cells are like plasmodesmata in plant cells in that they are channels between adjacent cells that allow for the transport of ions, nutrients, and other substances that enable cells to communicate (Figure 6d). Structurally, however, gap junctions and plasmodesmata differ.

Part a shows two plant cells side-by-side. A channel, or plasmodesma, in the cell wall allows fluid and small molecules to pass from the cytoplasm of one cell to the cytoplasm of another. Part b shows two cell membranes joined together by a matrix of tight junctions. Part c shows two cells fused together by a desmosome. Cadherins extend out from each cell and join the two cells together. Intermediate filaments connect to cadherins on the inside of the cell. Part d shows two cells joined together with protein pores called gap junctions that allow water and small molecules to pass through.

Figure 6. There are four kinds of connections between cells. (a) A plasmodesma is a channel between the cell walls of two adjacent plant cells. (b) Tight junctions join adjacent animal cells. (c) Desmosomes join two animal cells together. (d) Gap junctions act as channels between animal cells. (credit b, c, d: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal)


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