Cells are the structural and functional unit of all living organisms. Some organisms, such as bacteria, are unicellular, consisting of a single cell. Other organisms, such as humans, are multicellular, or have many cells—an estimated 100,000,000,000,000 cells! Each cell can take in nutrients, convert these nutrients into energy, carry out specialized functions, and reproduce as necessary. Even more amazing is that each cell stores its own set of instructions for carrying out each of these activities.

Cell Organization

It is important to know what organism the cell comes from. There are two general categories of cells: prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Prokaryotes are capable of inhabiting almost every place on the earth, from the deep ocean, to the edges of hot springs, to just about every surface of our bodies. Prokaryotes also lack any of the intracellular organelles and structures that are characteristic of eukaryotic cells. Most of the functions of organelles, such as mitochondria and the Golgi apparatus, are taken over by the prokaryotic plasma membrane. Eukaryotes are about 10 times the size of a prokaryote and can be as much as 1000 times greater in volume. The major and extremely significant difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes is that eukaryotic cells contain membrane-bounded compartments in which specific metabolic activities take place, and have small specialized structures called organelles that are dedicated to performing certain specific functions. Most important among these is the presence of a nucleus, a membrane-delineated compartment that houses the eukaryotic cell’s DNA.

Cell Structures: The Basics

The Plasma Membrane—A Cell's Protective Coat

The outer lining of a eukaryotic cell is called the plasma membrane. This membrane serves to separate and protect a cell from its surrounding environment and is made mostly from a double layer of proteins and lipids, fat-like molecules. Embedded within this membrane are a variety of other molecules that act as channels and pumps, moving different molecules into and out of the cell. A form of plasma membrane is also found in prokaryotes, but in this organism it is usually referred to as the cell membrane.

The Cytoskeleton—A Cell's Scaffold

The cytoskeleton is an important, complex, and dynamic cell component. It acts to organize and maintain the cell's shape; anchors organelles in place; helps during endocytosis (the uptake of external materials by a cell); and moves parts of the cell in processes of growth and motility. There are a great number of proteins associated with the cytoskeleton, each controlling a cell’s structure by directing, bundling, and aligning filaments.

The Cytoplasm—A Cell's Inner Space

Inside the cell there is a large fluid-filled space called the cytoplasm, sometimes called the cytosol. In prokaryotes, this space is relatively free of compartments. In eukaryotes, the cytosol is the "soup" within which all of the cell's organelles reside. It is also the home of the cytoskeleton. The cytosol contains dissolved nutrients, helps break down waste products, and moves material around the cell. The nucleus often flows with the cytoplasm changing its shape as it moves. The cytoplasm also contains many salts and is an excellent conductor of electricity, creating the perfect environment for the mechanics of the cell. The function of the cytoplasm, and the organelles which reside in it, are critical for a cell's survival.

Genetic Material

Two different kinds of genetic material exist: deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). Most organisms are made of DNA, but a few viruses have RNA as their genetic material. The biological information contained in an organism is encoded in its DNA or RNA sequence.

Prokaryotic genetic material is organized in a simple circular structure that rests in the cytoplasm. Eukaryotic genetic material is more complex and is in units called genes. The nuclear genome is divided into 24 DNA molecules, each contained in a different chromosome.


The human body contains many different organs, such as the heart, lung, and kidney, with each organ performing a different function. Cells also have a set of "little organs", called organelles, which are adapted and/or specialized for carrying out one or more vital functions. Organelles are found only in eukaryotes and are always surrounded by a protective membrane. It is important to know some basic facts about the following organelles.

The Nucleus—A Cell's Center

The nucleus is the most conspicuous organelle found in a eukaryotic cell. It houses the cell's chromosomes and is the place where almost all DNA replication and RNA synthesis occurs. The nucleus is spheroid in shape and separated from the cytoplasm by a membrane called the nuclear envelope. The nuclear envelope isolates and protects a cell's DNA from various molecules that could accidentally damage its structure or interfere with its processing.

The Ribosome—The Protein Production Machine

Ribosomes are found in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes. The ribosome is a large complex composed of many molecules, including RNA and proteins, and is responsible for processing the genetic instructions carried by mRNA. Protein synthesis is extremely important to all cells, and therefore a large number of ribosomes—sometimes hundreds or even thousands—can be found throughout a cell.

Ribosomes float freely in the cytoplasm or sometimes bind to another organelle called the endoplasmic reticulum.

Mitochondria--The Power Generator

Mitochondria are self-replicating organelles that occur in various numbers, shapes, and sizes in the cytoplasm of all eukaryotic cells. Mitochondria contain their own genome that is separate and distinct from the nuclear genome of a cell. Mitochondria have two functionally distinct membrane systems separated by a space: the outer membrane, which surrounds the whole organelle; and the inner membrane, which is thrown into folds or shelves that project inward. These inward folds are called cristae. The number and shape of cristae in mitochondria differ depending on the tissue and organism in which they are found, and serve to increase the surface area of the membrane. Mitochondria play a critical role in generating energy in the eukaryotic cell, and this process involves a number of complex pathways. They are the powerhouses of the cell.

The Endoplasmic Reticulum and the Golgi Apparatus—Macromolecule Managers

The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is the transport network for molecules targeted for certain modifications and specific destinations, as compared to molecules that will float freely in the cytoplasm. The ER has two forms: the rough ER and the smooth ER. The rough ER is labeled as such because it has ribosomes adhering to its outer surface, whereas the smooth ER does not. The smooth ER serves as the recipient for those proteins synthesized in the rough ER. Proteins to be exported are passed to the Golgi apparatus, sometimes called a Golgi body or Golgi complex, for further processing, packaging, and transport to a variety of other cellular locations.

Lysosomes and Peroxisomes—The Cellular Digestive System

Lysosomes and peroxisomes are often referred to as the garbage disposal system of a cell. Both organelles are somewhat spherical, bound by a single membrane, and rich in digestive enzymes, naturally occurring proteins that speed up biochemical processes. For example, lysosomes can contain more than three dozen enzymes for degrading proteins, nucleic acids, and certain sugars called polysaccharides. Here we can see the importance behind compartmentalization of the eukaryotic cell. The cell could not house such destructive enzymes if they were not contained in a membrane-bound system.



Animal Cell


Note: The animal eukaryotic cell concept map is based upon this article, and these two are meant either to be given out as homework or to be done in class as a team exercise to fill in the concept map blanks. I think it is best utilized as a normal homework assignment to clarify in the students’ minds exactly how the parts of the cell are connected.