Lab2 | Biology homework help


This experiment requires your lab kit.

You will explore the basic properties of the chemistry that underlies biology. You will determine the presence of biological macromolecules such as proteins and carbohydrates using reagents that change color in their presence.

Additional Materials needed for the labs (not included in lab kit)

Experiment 1: egg white, potato, onion, hot water, fork, knife, hot water bath, tap water

Photos of the results of all the tests in this experiment are required. Please include within the pictures an index card with your name and date.


We discussed last week that the properties of living organisms are determined by the properties of their building blocks. These building blocks interact through chemical bonding, and then form even larger entities. The elements most frequently found in biological molecules include carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and a few others in smaller amounts. The chemistry of the element carbon is particularly important for the formation of “organic molecules” that form the basic structure of biological molecules.

Biological molecules can be very large in comparison to atoms or subatomic molecules and are referred to as biological macromolecules (macro means “big”). Learning about macromolecules is important to understanding living organisms. All living organisms are characterized by the presence of four major classes of macromolecules: proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids. These macromolecules are often called the molecules of life.

Biological macromolecules such as proteins are able to carry out specific functions in living organisms. For example, certain proteins such as enzymes act as catalysts—substances that increase the rate of a chemical reaction between other molecules but do not change chemically themselves. These enzymes activate reactions occurring within living organisms.

However, enzymes and other biological molecules made of matter do not possess the properties of life. Only after we combine these molecular building blocks to form a cell can we finally see the emergent property of life. At this point we have the smallest units of structure and function in biology: cells are then living entities.

Types of cells differ considerably in their structure, size, shape, and function. Scientists usually categorize cells based on their structural features. You will learn these classifications and understand how those different features affect the cell’s purpose and abilities. Some living organisms, including humans, are composed of many different cell types among trillions of cells. Other living organisms, such as bacteria, are composed of just one single cell.

In this section, we will discuss cell theory and the various organelles of a cell. We will then learn about a cell structure called the plasma membrane and see how materials move in and out of this membrane.

You will participate in a class discussion related to topics in biology.

You will also complete a laboratory experiment related to biological macromolecules.

And you will demonstrate your knowledge of course concepts with a quiz.

Week 2 Outcomes

By the end of this week, you should be able to

  • describe the structure and function of biological molecules;
  • explain cell theory, the role of cells, and methods of studying cell structure;
  • compare and contrast eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells;
  • compare and contrast animal and plant cells;
  • describe the structure and functions of the major cell organelles, as well as the cytoskeleton and extracellular matrix;
  • explain the fluid mosaic model of membranes and the processes of cellular transport in eukaryotic cells;
  • determine the presence of proteins, glucose, starch (carbohydrate) using indicator solutions;
  • manipulate test tubes and measure liquids;
  • measure pH (acidity) using pH strips; and
  • apply concepts and/or argue a position related to a scientific topic.


Chemistry of Life: Biological Molecules

Biological Molecules

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • describe the ways in which carbon is critical to life
  • explain the impact of slight changes in amino acids on organisms
  • describe the four major types of biological molecules
  • understand the functions of the four major types of molecules.

The large molecules necessary for life that are built from smaller organic molecules are called biological macromolecules. There are four major classes of biological macromolecules (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids), and each is an important component of the cell and performs a wide array of functions. Combined, these molecules make up the majority of a cell’s mass. Biological macromolecules are organic, meaning that they contain carbon. In addition, they may contain hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, and additional minor elements.


It is often said that life is “carbon-based.” This means that carbon atoms, bonded to other carbon atoms or other elements, form the fundamental components of many, if not most, of the molecules found uniquely in living things. Other elements play important roles in biological molecules, but carbon certainly qualifies as the “foundation” element for molecules in living things. It is the bonding properties of carbon atoms that are responsible for its important role.

Carbon Bonding

Carbon contains four electrons in its outer shell. Therefore, it can form four covalent bonds with other atoms or molecules. The simplest organic carbon molecule is methane (CH4), in which four hydrogen atoms bind to a carbon atom (Figure 13).

However, structures that are more complex are made using carbon. Any of the hydrogen atoms could be replaced with another carbon atom covalently bonded to the first carbon atom. In this way, long and branching chains of carbon compounds can be made (Figure 14a). The carbon atoms may bond with atoms of other elements, such as nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphorus (Figure 14b). The molecules may also form rings, which themselves can link with other rings (Figure 14c). This diversity of molecular forms accounts for the diversity of functions of the biological macromolecules and is based to a large degree on the ability of carbon to form multiple bonds with itself and other atoms.


Carbohydrates are macromolecules with which most consumers are somewhat familiar. To lose weight, some individuals adhere to “low-carb” diets. Athletes, in contrast, often “carb-load” before important competitions to ensure that they have sufficient energy to compete at a high level. Carbohydrates are, in fact, an essential part of our diet; grains, fruits, and vegetables are all natural sources of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide energy to the body, particularly through glucose, a simple sugar. Carbohydrates also have other important functions in humans, animals, and plants.

Carbohydrates can be represented by the formula (CH2O)n, where n is the number of carbon atoms in the molecule. In other words, the ratio of carbon to hydrogen to oxygen is 1:2:1 in carbohydrate molecules. Carbohydrates are classified into three subtypes: monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides.

Monosaccharides (mono- = “one”; sacchar- = “sweet”) are simple sugars, the most common of which is glucose. In monosaccharides, the number of carbon atoms usually ranges from three to six. Most monosaccharide names end with the suffix -ose. Depending on the number of carbon atoms in the sugar, they may be known as trioses (three carbon atoms), pentoses (five carbon atoms), and hexoses (six carbon atoms).

Monosaccharides may exist as a linear chain or as ring-shaped molecules; in aqueous solutions, they are usually found in the ring form.

The chemical formula for glucose is C6H12O6. In most living species, glucose is an important source of energy. During cellular respiration, energy is released from glucose, and that energy is used to help make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Plants synthesize glucose using carbon dioxide and water by the process of photosynthesis, and the glucose, in turn, is used for the energy requirements of the plant. The excess synthesized glucose is often stored as starch that is broken down by other organisms that feed on plants.

Galactose (part of lactose, or milk sugar) and fructose (found in fruit) are other common monosaccharides. Although glucose, galactose, and fructose all have the same chemical formula (C6H12O6), they differ structurally and chemically (and are known as isomers) because of differing arrangements of atoms in the carbon chain (Figure 15).

Disaccharides (di- = “two”) form when two monosaccharides undergo a dehydration reaction (a reaction in which the removal of a water molecule occurs). During this process, the hydroxyl group (−OH) of one monosaccharide combines with a hydrogen atom of another monosaccharide, releasing a molecule of water (H2O) and forming a covalent bond between atoms in the two sugar molecules.

Common disaccharides include lactose, maltose, and sucrose. Lactose is a disaccharide consisting of the monomers glucose and galactose. It is found naturally in milk. Maltose, or malt sugar, is a disaccharide formed from a dehydration reaction between two glucose molecules. The most common disaccharide is sucrose, or table sugar, which is composed of the monomers glucose and fructose.

A long chain of monosaccharides linked by covalent bonds is known as a polysaccharide (poly- = “many”). The chain may be branched or unbranched, and it may contain different types of monosaccharides. Polysaccharides may be very large molecules. Starch, glycogen, cellulose, and chitin are examples of polysaccharides.

Starch is the stored form of sugars in plants and is made up of amylose and amylopectin (both polymers of glucose). Plants are able to synthesize glucose, and the excess glucose is stored as starch in different plant parts, including roots and seeds. The starch that is consumed by animals is broken down into smaller molecules, such as glucose. The cells can then absorb the glucose.

Glycogen is the storage form of glucose in humans and other vertebrates and is made up of monomers of glucose. Glycogen is the animal equivalent of starch and is a highly branched molecule usually stored in liver and muscle cells. Whenever glucose levels decrease, glycogen is broken down to release glucose.

Cellulose is one of the most abundant natural biopolymers. The cell walls of plants are mostly made of cellulose, which provides structural support to the cell. Wood and paper are mostly cellulosic in nature. Cellulose is made up of glucose monomers that are linked by bonds between particular carbon atoms in the glucose molecule.

Every other glucose monomer in cellulose is flipped over and packed tightly as extended long chains. This gives cellulose its rigidity and high tensile strength—which is so important to plant cells. Cellulose passing through our digestive system is called dietary fiber. While the glucose-glucose bonds in cellulose cannot be broken down by human digestive enzymes, herbivores such as cows, buffalos, and horses are able to digest grass that is rich in cellulose and use it as a food source. In these animals, certain species of bacteria reside in the digestive system and secrete the enzyme cellulase. Cellulases can break down cellulose into glucose monomers that can be used as an energy source by the animal.

Carbohydrates serve other functions in different animals. Arthropods, such as insects, spiders, and crabs, have an outer skeleton, called the exoskeleton, which protects their internal body parts. This exoskeleton is made of the biological macromolecule chitin, which is a nitrogenous carbohydrate. It is made of repeating units of a modified sugar containing nitrogen.

Thus, through differences in molecular structure, carbohydrates are able to serve the very different functions of energy storage (starch and glycogen) and structural support and protection (cellulose and chitin) (Figure 16)

Careers in Action: Registered Dietitian

Obesity is a worldwide health concern, and many diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, are becoming more prevalent because of obesity. This is one of the reasons why registered dietitians are increasingly sought after for advice. Registered dietitians help plan food and nutrition programs for individuals in various settings. They often work with patients in health-care facilities, designing nutrition plans to prevent and treat diseases. For example, dietitians may teach a patient with diabetes how to manage blood sugar levels by eating the correct types and amounts of carbohydrates. Dietitians may also work in nursing homes, schools, and private practices.

To become a registered dietitian, one needs to earn at least a bachelor’s degree in dietetics, nutrition, food technology, or a related field. In addition, registered dietitians must complete a supervised internship program and pass a national exam. Those who pursue careers in dietetics take courses in nutrition, chemistry, biochemistry, biology, microbiology, and human physiology. Dietitians must become experts in the chemistry and functions of food (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats).


Lipids include a diverse group of compounds that are united by a common feature. Lipids are hydrophobic (“water-fearing”), or insoluble in water, because they are nonpolar molecules. This is because they are hydrocarbons that include only nonpolar carbon-carbon or carbon-hydrogen bonds. Lipids perform many different functions in a cell. Cells store energy for long-term use in the form of lipids called fats. Lipids also provide insulation from the environment for plants and animals (Figure 17). For example, they help keep aquatic birds and mammals dry because of their water-repelling nature. Lipids are also the building blocks of many hormones and are an important constituent of the plasma membrane. Lipids include fats, oils, waxes, phospholipids, and steroids.

A fat molecule, such as a triglyceride, consists of two main components—glycerol and fatty acids. Glycerol is an organic compound with three carbon atoms, five hydrogen atoms, and three hydroxyl (−OH) groups. Fatty acids have a long chain of hydrocarbons to which an acidic carboxyl group is attached, hence the name “fatty acid.” The number of carbons in the fatty acid may range from 4 to 36; most common are those containing 12 to -18 carbons. In a fat molecule, a fatty acid is attached to each of the three oxygen atoms in the −OH groups of the glycerol molecule with a covalent bond (Figure 18).

During this covalent bond formation, three water molecules are released. The three fatty acids in the fat may be similar or dissimilar. These fats are also called triglycerides because they have three fatty acids. Some fatty acids have common names that specify their origin. For example, palmitic acid, a saturated fatty acid, is derived from the palm tree. Arachidic acid is derived from Arachis hypogaea, the scientific name for peanuts.

Fatty acids may be saturated or unsaturated. In a fatty acid chain, if there are only single bonds between neighboring carbons in the hydrocarbon chain, the fatty acid is saturated. Saturated fatty acids are saturated with hydrogen; in other words, the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon skeleton is maximized.

When the hydrocarbon chain contains a double bond, the fatty acid is an unsaturated fatty acid.

Most unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature and are called oils. If there is one double bond in the molecule, then it is known as a monounsaturated fat (e.g., olive oil), and if there is more than one double bond, then it is known as a polyunsaturated fat (e.g., canola oil).

Saturated fats tend to get packed tightly and are solid at room temperature. Animal fats with stearic acid and palmitic acid contained in meat, and the fat with butyric acid contained in butter, are examples of saturated fats. Mammals store fats in specialized cells called adipocytes, where globules of fat occupy most of the cell. In plants, fat or oil is stored in seeds and is used as a source of energy during embryonic development.

Unsaturated fats or oils are usually of plant origin and contain unsaturated fatty acids. The double bond causes a bend or a “kink” that prevents the fatty acids from packing tightly, keeping them liquid at room temperature. Olive oil, corn oil, canola oil, and cod liver oil are examples of unsaturated fats. Unsaturated fats help to improve blood cholesterol levels, whereas saturated fats contribute to plaque formation in the arteries, which increases the risk of a heart attack.

In the food industry, oils are artificially hydrogenated to make them semisolid, leading to less spoilage and increased shelf life. Simply speaking, hydrogen gas is bubbled through oils to solidify them. During this hydrogenation process, double bonds of the cis-conformation in the hydrocarbon chain may be converted to double bonds in the trans-conformation. This forms a trans-fat from a cis-fat. The orientation of the double bonds affects the chemical properties of the fat (Figure 19)..

Margarine, some types of peanut butter, and shortening are examples of artificially hydrogenated trans-fats. Recent studies have shown that an increase in trans-fats in the human diet may lead to an increase in levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, which, in turn, may lead to plaque deposition in the arteries, resulting in heart disease. Many fast food restaurants have recently eliminated the use of trans-fats, and U.S. food labels are now required to list trans-fat content.

Essential fatty acids are fatty acids that are required but not synthesized by the human body. Consequently, they must be supplemented through the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids fall into this category and are one of only two known essential fatty acids for humans (the other being omega-6 fatty acids). They are a type of polyunsaturated fat and are called omega-3 fatty acids because the third carbon from the end of the fatty acid participates in a double bond.

Salmon, trout, and tuna are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are important in brain function and normal growth and development. They may also prevent heart disease and reduce the risk of cancer.

Like carbohydrates, fats have received a lot of bad publicity. It is true that eating an excess of fried foods and other “fatty” foods leads to weight gain. However, fats do have important functions. Fats serve as long-term energy storage. They also provide insulation for the body. Therefore, “healthy” unsaturated fats in moderate amounts should be consumed on a regular basis.

Phospholipids are the major constituent of the plasma membrane. Like fats, they are composed of fatty acid chains attached to a glycerol or similar backbone. Instead of three fatty acids attached, however, there are two fatty acids, and the third carbon of the glycerol backbone is bound to a phosphate group. The phosphate group is modified by the addition of an alcohol.

A phospholipid has both hydrophobic and hydrophilic regions. The fatty acid chains are hydrophobic and exclude themselves from water, whereas the phosphate is hydrophilic and interacts with water.

Cells are surrounded by a membrane, which has a bilayer of phospholipids. The fatty acids of phospholipids face inside, away from water, whereas the phosphate group can face either the outside environment or the inside of the cell, which are both aqueous.

Steroids and Waxes

Unlike the phospholipids and fats discussed earlier, steroids have a ring structure. Although they do not resemble other lipids, they are grouped with them because they are also hydrophobic. All steroids have four linked carbon rings and several of them, like cholesterol, have a short tail.

Cholesterol is a steroid. Cholesterol is mainly synthesized in the liver and is the precursor of many steroid hormones, such as testosterone and estradiol. It is also the precursor of vitamins E and

K and the precursor of bile salts, which help in the breakdown of fats and their subsequent absorption by cells. Although cholesterol is often spoken of in negative terms, it is necessary for the proper functioning of the body. It is a key component of the plasma membranes of animal cells.

Waxes are made up of a hydrocarbon chain with an alcohol (−OH) group and a fatty acid. Examples of animal waxes include beeswax and lanolin. Plants also have waxes, such as the coating on their leaves, that helps prevent them from drying out.

For an additional perspective on lipids, explore “Biomolecules: The Lipids” through this interactive animation:


Proteins are one of the most abundant organic molecules in living systems and have the most diverse range of functions of all macromolecules. Proteins may be structural, regulatory, contractile, or protective; they may serve in transport, storage, or membranes; or they may be toxins or enzymes. Each cell in a living system may contain thousands of different proteins, each with a unique function. Their structures, like their functions, vary greatly. They are all, however, polymers of amino acids, arranged in a linear sequence.

The functions of proteins are very diverse because there are 20 different chemically distinct amino acids that form long chains, and the amino acids can be in any order. For example, proteins can function as enzymes or hormones. Enzymes, which are produced by living cells, are catalysts in biochemical reactions (like digestion) and are usually proteins. Each enzyme is specific for the substrate (a reactant that binds to an enzyme) upon which it acts. Enzymes can function to break molecular bonds, to rearrange bonds, or to form new bonds. An example of an enzyme is salivary amylase, which breaks down amylose, a component of starch.

Hormones are chemical signaling molecules, usually proteins or steroids, secreted by an endocrine gland or group of endocrine cells that act to control or regulate specific physiological processes, including growth, development, metabolism, and reproduction. For example, insulin is a protein hormone that maintains blood glucose levels.

Proteins have different shapes and molecular weights; some proteins are globular in shape whereas others are fibrous in nature. For example, hemoglobin is a globular protein, but collagen, found in our skin, is a fibrous protein. Protein shape is critical to its function. Changes in temperature, pH, and exposure to chemicals may lead to permanent changes in the shape of the protein, leading to a loss of function or denaturation (to be discussed in more detail later). All proteins are made up of different arrangements of the same 20 kinds of amino acids.

Amino acids are the monomers that make up proteins. Each amino acid has the same fundamental structure, which consists of a central carbon atom bonded to an amino group (−NH2), a carboxyl group (−COOH), and a hydrogen atom. Every amino acid also has another variable atom or group of atoms bonded to the central carbon atom known as the R group. The R group is the only difference in structure between the 20 amino acids; otherwise, the amino acids are identical (Figure 20).

The chemical nature of the R group determines the chemical nature of the amino acid within its protein (that is, whether it is acidic, basic, polar, or nonpolar).

The sequence and number of amino acids ultimately determine a protein’s shape, size, and function. Each amino acid is attached to another amino acid by a covalent bond, known as a peptide bond, which is formed by a dehydration reaction. The carboxyl group of one amino acid and the amino group of a second amino acid combine, releasing a water molecule. The resulting bond is the peptide bond.

The products formed by such a linkage are called polypeptides. While the terms polypeptide and protein are sometimes used interchangeably, a polypeptide is technically a polymer of amino acids, whereas the term protein is used for a polypeptide or polypeptides that have combined, have a distinct shape, and have a unique function.

Evolution in Action: The Evolutionary Significance of Cytochrome c

Cytochrome c is an important component of the molecular machinery that harvests energy from glucose. Because this protein’s role in producing cellular energy is crucial, it has changed very little over millions of years. Protein sequencing has shown that there is a considerable amount of sequence similarity among cytochrome c molecules of different species; evolutionary relationships can be assessed by measuring the similarities or differences among various species’ protein sequences.

For example, scientists have determined that human cytochrome c contains 104 amino acids. For each cytochrome c molecule that has been sequenced to date from different organisms, 37 of these amino acids appear in the same position in each cytochrome c. This indicates that all these organisms are descended from a common ancestor. On comparing the human and chimpanzee protein sequences, no sequence difference was found. When human and rhesus monkey sequences were compared, a single difference was found in one amino acid. In contrast, human-to-yeast comparisons show a difference in 44 amino acids, suggesting that humans and chimpanzees have a more recent common ancestor than humans and the rhesus monkey, or humans and yeast.

Protein Structure

As discussed earlier, the shape of a protein is critical to its function. To understand how the protein gets its final shape or conformation, we need to understand the four levels of protein structure: primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary (Figure 21).

The unique sequence and number of amino acids in a polypeptide chain is its primary structure. The unique sequence for every protein is ultimately determined by the gene that encodes the protein. Any change in the gene sequence may lead to a different amino acid being added to the polypeptide chain, causing a change in protein structure and function. In sickle cell anemia, the hemoglobin β chain has a single amino acid substitution, causing a change in both the structure and function of the protein. What is most remarkable to consider is that a hemoglobin molecule is made up of two alpha chains and two beta chains that each consist of about 150 amino acids. The molecule, therefore, has about 600 amino acids. The structural difference between a normal hemoglobin molecule and a sickle cell molecule—that dramatically decreases life expectancy—is a single amino acid of the 600.

Because of this change of one amino acid in the chain, the normally biconcave, or disc-shaped, red blood cells assume a crescent or “sickle” shape, which clogs arteries. This can lead to a myriad of serious health problems, such as breathlessness, dizziness, headaches, and abdominal pain for those who have this disease.

Folding patterns resulting from interactions between the non-R group portions of amino acids give rise to the secondary structure of the protein. The most common are the alpha (α)-helix and beta (β)- pleated sheet structures. Both structures are held in shape by hydrogen bonds. In the alpha helix, the bonds form between every fourth amino acid and cause a twist in the amino acid chain.

In the β-pleated sheet, the “pleats” are formed by hydrogen bonding between atoms on the backbone of the polypeptide chain. The R groups are attached to the carbons and extend above and below the folds of the pleat. The pleated segments align parallel to each other, and hydrogen bonds form between the same pairs of atoms on each of the aligned amino acids. The α-helix and β-pleated sheet structures are found in many globular and fibrous proteins.

The unique three-dimensional structure of a polypeptide is known as its tertiary structure. This structure is caused by chemical interactions between various amino acids and regions of the polypeptide. Primarily, the interactions among R groups create the complex three-dimensional tertiary structure of a protein. There may be ionic bonds formed between R groups on different amino acids, or hydrogen bonding beyond that involved in the secondary structure. When protein folding takes place, the hydrophobic R groups of nonpolar amino acids lie in the interior of the protein, whereas the hydrophilic R groups lie on the outside. The former types of interactions are also known as hydrophobic interactions. In nature, some proteins are formed from several polypeptides, also known as subunits, and the interaction of these subunits forms the quaternary structure. Weak interactions between the subunits help to stabilize the overall structure. For example, hemoglobin is a combination of four polypeptide subunits.

Each protein has its own unique sequence and shape held together by chemical interactions. If the protein is subject to changes in temperature, pH, or exposure to chemicals, the protein structure may change, losing its shape in what is known as denaturation, as discussed earlier. Denaturation is often reversible because the primary structure is preserved if the denaturing agent is removed, allowing the protein to resume its function. Sometimes denaturation is irreversible, leading to a loss of function. One example of protein denaturation can be seen when an egg is fried or boiled. The albumin protein in the liquid egg white is denatured when placed in a hot pan, changing from a clear substance to an opaque white substance. Not all proteins are denatured at high temperatures; for instance, bacteria that survive in hot springs have proteins that are adapted to function at those temperatures.

For an additional perspective on proteins, explore “Biomolecules: The Proteins” through this interactive animation (

Nucleic Acids

Nucleic acids are key macromolecules in the continuity of life. They carry the genetic blueprint of a cell and carry instructions for the functioning of the cell.

The two main types of nucleic acids are deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). DNA is the genetic material found in all living organisms, ranging from single-celled bacteria to multicellular mammals.

The other type of nucleic acid, RNA, is mostly involved in protein synthesis. The DNA molecules never leave the nucleus but instead use an RNA intermediary to communicate with the rest of the cell. Other types of RNA are also involved in protein synthesis and its regulation.

DNA and RNA are made up of monomers known as nucleotides. The nucleotides combine with each other to form a polynucleotide, DNA or RNA. Each nucleotide is made up of three components: a nitrogenous base, a pentose (five-carbon) sugar, and a phosphate group (Figure 22). Each nitrogenous base in a nucleotide is attached to a sugar molecule, which is attached to a phosphate group.

DNA Double-Helical Structure

DNA has a double-helical structure (Figure 23). It is composed of two strands, or polymers, of nucleotides. The strands are formed with bonds between phosphate and sugar groups of adjacent nucleotides. The strands are bonded to each other at their bases with hydrogen bonds, and the strands coil about each other along their length, hence the “double helix” description, which means a double spiral.

The alternating sugar and phosphate groups lie on the outside of each strand, forming the backbone of the DNA. The nitrogenous bases are stacked in the interior, like the steps of a staircase, and these bases pair; the pairs are bound to each other by hydrogen bonds. The bases pair in such a way that the distance between the backbones of the two strands is the same all along the molecule.      

Key Terms

acid a substance that donates hydrogen ions and therefore lowers pH

adhesion the attraction between water molecules and molecules of a different substance

amino acid a monomer of a protein

anion a negative ion formed by gaining electrons

atomic number the number of protons in an atom

base a substance that absorbs hydrogen ions and therefore raises pH

buffer a solution that resists a change in pH by absorbing or releasing hydrogen or hydroxide ions

carbohydrate a biological macromolecule in which the ratio of carbon to hydrogen to oxygen is 1:2:1; carbohydrates serve as energy sources and structural support in cells

cation a positive ion formed by losing electrons

cellulose a polysaccharide that makes up the cell walls of plants and provides structural support to the cell

chemical bond an interaction between two or more of the same or different elements that results in the formation of molecules

chitin a type of carbohydrate that forms the outer skeleton of arthropods, such as insects and crustaceans, and the cell walls of fungi

cohesion the intermolecular forces between water molecules caused by the polar nature of water; creates surface tension

covalent bond a type of strong bond between two or more of the same or different elements; forms when electrons are shared between elements

denaturation the loss of shape in a protein as a result of changes in temperature, pH, or exposure to chemicals

deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) a double-stranded polymer of nucleotides that carries the hereditary information of the cell

disaccharide two sugar monomers that are linked together by a peptide bond

electron a negatively charged particle that resides outside of the nucleus in the electron orbital; lacks functional mass and has a charge of –1

electron transfer the movement of electrons from one element to another

element one of 118 unique substances that cannot be broken down into smaller substances and retain the characteristic of that substance; each element has a specified number of protons and unique properties

enzyme a catalyst in a biochemical reaction that is usually a complex or conjugated protein

evaporation the release of water molecules from liquid water to form water vapor

fat a lipid molecule composed of three fatty acids and a glycerol (triglyceride) that typically exists in a solid form at room temperature

glycogen a storage carbohydrate in animals

hormone a chemical signaling molecule, usually a protein or steroid, secreted by an endocrine gland or group of endocrine cells; acts to control or regulate specific physiological processes

hydrogen bond a weak bond between partially positively charged hydrogen atoms and partially negatively charged elements or molecules

hydrophilic describes a substance that dissolves in water; water-loving

hydrophobic describes a substance that does not dissolve in water; water-fearing

ion an atom or compound that does not contain equal numbers of protons and electrons and therefore has a net charge

ionic bond a chemical bond that forms between ions of opposite charges

isotope one or more forms of an element that have different numbers of neutrons

lipids a class of macromolecules that are nonpolar and insoluble in water

litmus paper filter paper that has been treated with a natural water-soluble dye so it can be used as a pH indicator

macromolecule a large molecule, often formed by polymerization of smaller monomers

mass number the number of protons plus neutrons in an atom

matter anything that has mass and occupies space

monosaccharide a single unit or monomer of carbohydrates

neutron a particle with no charge that resides in the nucleus of an atom; has a mass of 1

nonpolar covalent bond a type of covalent bond that forms between atoms when electrons are shared equally between atoms, resulting in no regions with partial charges as in polar covalent bonds

nucleic acid a biological macromolecule that carries the genetic information of a cell and carries instructions for the functioning of the cell

nucleotide a monomer of nucleic acids; contains a pentose sugar, a phosphate group, and a nitrogenous base

nucleus (chemistry) the dense center of an atom made up of protons and (except in the case of a hydrogen atom) neutrons

octet rule states that the outermost shell of an element with a low atomic number can hold eight electrons

oil an unsaturated fat that is a liquid at room temperature

periodic table of elements an organizational chart of elements, indicating the atomic number and mass number of each element; also provides key information about the properties of elements

pH scale a scale ranging from 0 to 14 that measures the approximate concentration of hydrogen ions of a substance

phospholipid a major constituent of the membranes of cells; composed of two fatty acids and a phosphate group attached to the glycerol backbone

polar covalent bond a type of covalent bond in which electrons are pulled toward one atom and away from another, resulting in slightly positive and slightly negative charged regions of the molecule

polypeptide a long chain of amino acids linked by peptide bonds

polysaccharide a long chain of monosaccharides; may be branched or unbranched

protein a biological macromolecule composed of one or more chains of amino acids

proton a positively charged particle that resides in the nucleus of an atom; has a mass of 1 and a charge of +1

radioactive isotope an isotope that spontaneously emits particles or energy to form a more stable element

ribonucleic acid (RNA) a single-stranded polymer of nucleotides that is involved in protein synthesis

saturated fatty acid a long-chain hydrocarbon with single covalent bonds in the carbon chain; the number of hydrogen atoms attached to the carbon skeleton is maximized

solvent a substance capable of dissolving another substance

starch a storage carbohydrate in plants

steroid a type of lipid composed of four fused hydrocarbon rings

surface tension the cohesive force at the surface of a body of liquid that prevents the molecules from separating

temperature a measure of molecular motion

trans-fat a form of unsaturated fat with the hydrogen atoms neighboring the double bond across from each other rather than on the same side of the double bond

triglyceride a fat molecule; consists of three fatty acids linked to a glycerol molecule

unsaturated fatty acid a long-chain hydrocarbon that has one or more than one double bonds in the hydrocarbon chain

van der Waals interaction a weak attraction or interaction between molecules caused by slightly positively charged or slightly negatively charged atoms

Chapter Summary

The Building Blocks of Molecules

Matter is anything that occupies space and has mass. It is made up of atoms of different elements. All the 92 elements that occur naturally have unique qualities that allow them to combine in various ways to create compounds or molecules. Atoms, which consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons, are the smallest units of an element that retain all the properties of that element. Electrons can be donated or shared between atoms to create bonds, including ionic, covalent, and hydrogen bonds, as well as van der Waals interactions.


Water has many properties that are critical to maintaining life. It is polar, allowing for the formation of hydrogen bonds, which allow ions and other polar molecules to dissolve in water. Therefore, water is an excellent solvent. The hydrogen bonds between water molecules give water the ability to hold heat better than many other substances. As the temperature rises, the hydrogen bonds between water continually break and reform, allowing for the overall temperature to remain stable, although increased energy is added to the system. Water’s cohesive forces allow for the property of surface tension. All these unique properties of water are important in the chemistry of living organisms.

The pH of a solution is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions in the solution. A solution with a high number of hydrogen ions is acidic and has a low pH value. A solution with a high number of hydroxide ions is basic and has a high pH value. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with a pH of 7 being neutral. Buffers are solutions that moderate pH changes when an acid or base is added to the buffer system. Buffers are important in biological systems because of their ability to maintain constant pH conditions.

Biological Molecules 

Living things are carbon-based because carbon plays such a prominent role in the chemistry of living things. The four covalent bonding positions of the carbon atom can give rise to a wide diversity of compounds with many functions, accounting for the importance of carbon in living things. Carbohydrates are a group of macromolecules that are a vital energy source for the cell, provide structural support to many organisms, and can be found on the surface of the cell as receptors or for cell recognition. Carbohydrates are classified as monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides, depending on the number of monomers in the molecule.

Lipids are a class of macromolecules that are nonpolar and hydrophobic in nature. Major types include fats and oils, waxes, phospholipids, and steroids. Fats and oils are a stored form of energy and can include triglycerides. Fats and oils are usually made up of fatty acids and glycerol.

Proteins are a class of macromolecules that can perform a diverse range of functions for the cell.

They help in metabolism by providing structural support and by acting as enzymes, carriers, or as hormones. The building blocks of proteins are amino acids. Proteins are organized at four levels: primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary. Protein shape and function are intricately linked; any change in shape caused by changes in temperature, pH, or chemical exposure may lead to protein denaturation and a loss of function.

Nucleic acids are molecules made up of repeating units of nucleotides that direct cellular activities such as cell division and protein synthesis. Each nucleotide is made up of a pentose sugar, a nitrogenous base, and a phosphate group. There are two types of nucleic acids: DNA and RNA.

Art Connection Question

1.  Figure 3 How many neutrons do (K) potassium-39 and potassium-40 have, respectively?

Review Questions

1.  Magnesium has an atomic number of 12. Which of the following statements is true of a neutral magnesium atom?

a. It has 12 protons, 12 electrons, and 12 neutrons.

b.  It has 12 protons, 12 electrons, and six neutrons.

c. It has six protons, six electrons, and no neutrons.

d. It has six protons, six electrons, and six neutrons.

2.  Which type of bond represents a weak chemical bond?

a. hydrogen bond

b. ionic bond

c. covalent bond

d. polar covalent bond

3.  An isotope of sodium (Na) has a mass number of 22. How many neutrons does it have?

a. 11

b. 12

c. 22

d. 44

4.  Which of the following statements is not true?

a. Water is polar.

b.  Water stabilizes temperature.

c.. Water is essential for life.

d. Water is the most abundant atom in Earth’s atmosphere.

5.  Using a pH meter, you find the pH of an unknown solution to be 8.0. How would you describe this solution?

a. weakly acidic

b. strongly acidic

c. weakly basic

d. strongly basic

6.  The pH of lemon juice is about 2.0; tomato juice’s pH is about 4.0. Approximately how much of an increase in hydrogen ion concentration is there between tomato juice and lemon juice?

a. 2 times

b. 10 times

c. 100 times

d. 1000 times

7.  An example of a monosaccharide is

a. fructose

b. glucose

c. galactose

d. all of the above

8.  Cellulose and starch are examples of

a. monosaccharides

b. disaccharides

c. lipids

d. polysaccharides

9.      Phospholipids are important components of

a. the plasma membrane of cells

b. the ring structure of steroids

c. the waxy covering on leaves

d. the double bond in hydrocarbon chains

10.  The monomers that make up proteins are called     .

a. nucleotides

b. disaccharides

c. amino acids

d. chaperones 

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. Why are hydrogen bonds and van der Waals interactions necessary for cells?
  2. Why can some insects walk on water?
  3. Explain why water is an excellent solvent.
  4. Explain at least three functions that lipids serve in plants and/or animals.
  5. Explain what happens if even one amino acid is substituted for another in a polypeptide chain. Provide a specific example.


Cell Structure and Function

Chapter Outline

  • How Cells are Studied
  • Comparing Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells
  • Eukaryotic Cells
  • The Cell Membrane
  • Passive Transport
  • Active Transport


Close your eyes and picture a brick wall. What is the basic building block of that wall? It is 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.

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, red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. 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, all cells share certain fundamental characteristics.

By the end of this section,  you will be able to:

  • describe the roles of cells in organisms
  • compare and contrast light microscopy and electron microscopy
  • summarize the cell theory

How Cells Are Studied

A cell is the smallest unit of a living thing. A living thing, like you, is called an organism. Thus, cells are the basic building blocks of all organisms.

In multicellular organisms, several cells of one particular kind interconnect with each other and perform shared functions to form tissues (for example, muscle tissue, connective tissue, and nervous tissue); several tissues combine to form an organ (for example, stomach, heart, or brain); and several organs make up an organ system (such as the digestive system, circulatory system, or nervous system). Several systems functioning together form an organism (such as an elephant, for example).

There are many types of cells, and all are grouped into one of two broad categories: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Animal cells, plant cells, fungal cells, and protist cells are classified as eukaryotic, whereas bacteria and archaea cells are classified as prokaryotic. Before discussing the criteria for determining whether a cell is prokaryotic or eukaryotic, let us first examine how biologists study cells.


Cells vary in size. With few exceptions, individual cells are too small to be seen with the naked eye, so scientists use microscopes to study them. A microscope is an instrument that magnifies an object. Most images of cells are taken with a microscope and are called micrographs.

Light Microscopes

To give you a sense of the size of a cell, a typical human red blood cell is about eight millionths of a meter, or eight micrometers (abbreviated as µm) in diameter; the head of a pin is about two thousandths of a meter, or 2 millimeters (mm) in diameter. That means that approximately 250 red blood cells could fit on the head of a pin.

The optics of the lenses of a light microscope changes the orientation of the image. 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. Due to the manner in which light travels through the lenses, this system of lenses produces an inverted image (binoculars and a dissecting microscope work in a similar manner but include an additional magnification system that makes the final image appear to be upright).

Most student microscopes are classified as light microscopes (Figure 2a). Visible light both passes through and is bent by 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.

Light microscopes commonly used in the undergraduate college laboratory magnify up to approximately 400 times. Two parameters that are important in microscopy are magnification and resolving power. Magnification is the degree of enlargement of an object. Resolving power is the ability of a microscope to allow the eye to distinguish two adjacent structures as separate; the higher the resolution, the closer those two objects can be and the better the clarity and detail of the image. When oil immersion lenses are used, magnification is usually increased to 1,000 times for the study of smaller cells, like most prokaryotic cells. Because light entering a specimen from below is focused onto the eye of an observer, the specimen can be viewed using light microscopy. For this reason, for light to pass through a specimen, the sample must be thin or translucent.

A second type of microscope used in laboratories is the dissecting microscope (Figure 2b). These microscopes have a lower magnification (20 to 80 times the object size) than light microscopes and can provide a three-dimensional view of the specimen. Thick objects can be examined with many components in focus at the same time. These microscopes are designed to give a magnified and clear view of tissue structure as well as the anatomy of the whole organism. Like light microscopes, most modern dissecting microscopes are also binocular, meaning that they have two separate lens systems, one for each eye. The lens systems are separated by a certain distance and therefore provide a sense of depth in the view of their subject to make manipulations by hand easier. Dissecting microscopes also have optics that correct the image so that it appears as if being seen by the naked eye and not as an inverted image. The light illuminating a sample under a dissecting microscope typically comes from above the sample, but may also be directed from below.

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 (Figure 3), it also provides higher resolving power. Preparation of a specimen for viewing under an electron microscope will kill it; therefore, live cells cannot be viewed using this type of microscopy. In addition, the electron beam moves best in a vacuum, making it impossible to view living materials.

In a scanning electron microscope, a beam of electrons moves back and forth across a cell’s surface, rendering the details of cell surface characteristics by reflection. Cells and other structures are usually coated with a metal like gold. In a transmission electron microscope, the electron beam is transmitted through the cell and provides details of a cell’s internal structures. As you might imagine, electron microscopes are significantly more bulky and expensive than are light microscopes.

Careers in Action: Cytotechnologist

Have you ever heard of a medical test called a Pap smear (Figure 4)? In this test, a doctor takes a small sample of cells from the uterine cervix of a patient and sends it to a medical lab where a cytotechnologist stains the cells and examines them for any changes that could indicate cervical cancer or a microbial infection.

Cytotechnologists (cyto– = cell) are professionals who study cells through microscopic examinations and other laboratory tests. They are trained to determine which cellular changes are within normal limits or are abnormal. Their focus is not limited to cervical cells; they study cellular specimens that come from all organs. When they notice abnormalities, they consult a pathologist, who is a medical doctor who can make a clinical diagnosis.

Cytotechnologists play vital roles in saving people’s lives. When abnormalities are discovered early, a patient’s treatment can begin sooner, which usually increases the chances of successful treatment.

Cell Theory

The microscopes we use today are far more complex than those used in the 1600s by Antonie 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 protists (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” (from the Latin cella, meaning “small room”) 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 and microscope construction enabled other scientists to see different components inside cells.

By the late 1830s, botanist Matthias Schleiden and zoologist Theodor Schwann were studying tissues and proposed the unified cell theory, which states that all living things are composed of one or more cells, that the cell is the basic unit of life, and that all new cells arise from existing cells. These principles still stand today.

Comparing Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • name examples of prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms
  • compare and contrast prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells
  • describe the relative sizes of different kinds of cells.

Cells fall into one of two broad categories: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. The predominantly single-celled organisms of the domains Bacteria and Archaea are classified as prokaryotes (pro– = before; –karyon– = nucleus). Animal cells, plant cells, fungi, and protists are eukaryotes (eu– = true).

Components of Prokaryotic Cells

All cells share four common components: 1) a plasma membrane, an outer covering that separates the cell’s interior from its surrounding environment; 2) cytoplasm, consisting of a jelly-like region within the cell in which other cellular components are found; 3) DNA, the genetic material of the cell; and 4) ribosomes, particles that synthesize proteins. However, prokaryotes differ from eukaryotic cells in several ways.

A prokaryotic cell is a simple, single-celled (unicellular) organism that lacks a nucleus, or any other membrane-bound organelle. We will shortly come to see that this is significantly different in eukaryotes. Prokaryotic DNA is found in the central part of the cell: a darkened region called the nucleoid (Figure 5).

Unlike Archaea and eukaryotes, bacteria have a cell wall made of peptidoglycan, composed of sugars and amino acids, and many have a polysaccharide capsule (Figure 5). The cell wall acts as an extra layer of protection, helps the cell maintain its shape, and prevents dehydration. The capsule enables the cell to attach to surfaces in its environment. Some prokaryotes have flagella, pili, or fimbriae. Flagella are used for locomotion. Pili are used to exchange genetic material during a type of reproduction called conjugation. Fimbriae are protein appendages used by bacteria to attach to other cells.

Eukaryotic Cells

In nature, the relationship between form and function is apparent at all levels, including the level of the cell, and this will become clear as we explore eukaryotic cells. The principle “form follows function” is found in many contexts. For example, birds and fish have streamlined bodies that allow them to move quickly through the medium in which they live, be it air or water. It means that, in general, one can deduce the function of a structure by looking at its form, because the two are matched.

A eukaryotic cell is a cell that has a membrane-bound nucleus and other membrane-bound compartments or sacs, called organelles, which have specialized functions. The word eukaryotic means “true kernel” or “true nucleus,” alluding to the presence of the membrane-bound nucleus in these cells.

The word “organelle” means “little organ,” and, as already mentioned, organelles have specialized cellular functions, just as the organs of your body have specialized functions.

Cell Size

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 (Figure 6). The small size of prokaryotes allows ions and organic molecules that enter them to quickly spread to other parts of the cell. Similarly, any wastes produced within a prokaryotic cell can quickly move out. However, larger eukaryotic cells have evolved different structural adaptations to enhance cellular transport. Indeed, the large size of these cells would not be possible without these adaptations. In general, cell size is limited because volume increases much more quickly than does cell surface area. As a cell becomes larger, it becomes more and more difficult for the cell to acquire sufficient materials to support the processes inside the cell, because the relative size of the surface area through which materials must be transported declines.

By the end of this section, you will be able to: 

  • describe the structure of eukaryotic plant and animal cells
  • state the role of the plasma membrane
  • summarize the functions of the major cell organelles
  • describe the cytoskeleton extracellar matrix.

Eukaryotic Cells

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. Before discussing the functions of organelles within a eukaryotic cell, let us first examine two important components of the cell: the plasma membrane and the cytoplasm.

Art Connection

The Plasma Membrane

Like prokaryotes, eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane (Figure 8) made up of a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins that separates the internal contents of the cell from its surrounding environment. A phospholipid is a lipid molecule composed of two fatty acid chains and a phosphate group. The plasma membrane regulates the passage of some substances, such as organic molecules, ions, and water, preventing the passage of some to maintain internal conditions, while actively bringing in or removing others. Other compounds move passively across the membrane.

The plasma membranes of cells that specialize in absorption are folded into fingerlike projections called microvilli (singular = microvillus). This folding increases the surface area of the plasma membrane. Such cells are typically found lining the small intestine, the organ that absorbs nutrients from digested food. This is an excellent example of form matching the function of a structure.

People with celiac disease have an immune response to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. The immune response damages microvilli, and thus, afflicted individuals cannot absorb nutrients. This leads to malnutrition, cramping, and diarrhea. Patients suffering from celiac disease must follow a gluten-free diet.

The Cytoplasm

The cytoplasm comprises the contents of a cell between the plasma membrane and the nuclear envelope (a structure to be discussed shortly). It is made up of organelles suspended in the gel-like cytosol, the cytoskeleton, and various chemicals (Figure 7). Even though the cytoplasm consists of 70 to 80 percent water, it has a semisolid consistency, which comes from the proteins within it. However, proteins are not the only organic molecules found in the cytoplasm. Glucose and other simple sugars, polysaccharides, amino acids, nucleic acids, fatty acids, and derivatives of glycerol are found there too. Ions of sodium, potassium, calcium, and many other elements are also dissolved in the cytoplasm. Many metabolic reactions, including protein synthesis, take place in the cytoplasm.

The Cytoskeleton

If you were to remove all the organelles from a cell, would the plasma membrane and the cytoplasm be the only components left? No. Within the cytoplasm, there would still be ions and organic molecules, plus a network of protein fibers that helps to maintain the shape of the cell, secures certain organelles in specific positions, allows cytoplasm and vesicles to move within the cell, and enables unicellular organisms to move independently. Collectively, this network of protein fibers is known as the cytoskeleton. There are three types of fibers within the cytoskeleton: microfilaments, also known as actin filaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules (Figure 9).

Microfilaments are the thinnest of the cytoskeletal fibers and function in moving cellular components, for example, during cell division. They also maintain the structure of microvilli, the extensive folding of the plasma membrane found in cells dedicated to absorption. These components are also common in muscle cells and are responsible for muscle cell contraction. Intermediate filaments are of intermediate diameter and have structural functions, such as maintaining the shape of the cell and anchoring organelles. Keratin, the compound that strengthens hair and nails, forms one type of intermediate filament. Microtubules are the thickest of the cytoskeletal fibers. These are hollow tubes that can dissolve and reform quickly. Microtubules guide organelle movement and are the structures that pull chromosomes to their poles during cell division. They are also the structural components of flagella and cilia. In cilia and flagella, the microtubules are organized as a circle of nine double microtubules on the outside and two microtubules in the center.

The centrosome is a region near the nucleus of animal cells that functions as a microtubule- organizing center. It contains a pair of centrioles, two structures that lie perpendicular to each other. Each centriole is a cylinder of nine triplets of microtubules.

The centrosome replicates itself before a cell divides, and the centrioles play a role in pulling the duplicated chromosomes to opposite ends of the dividing cell. However, the exact function of the centrioles in cell division is not clear, since cells that have the centrioles removed can still divide, and plant cells, which lack centrioles, are capable of cell division.

Flagella and Cilia

Flagella (singular = flagellum) are long, hair-like structures that extend from the plasma membrane and are used to move an entire cell, (for example, sperm, Euglena). When present, the cell has just one flagellum or a few flagella. When cilia (singular = cilium) are present, however, they are many in number and extend along the entire surface of the plasma membrane. They are short, hair-like structures that are used to move entire cells (such as paramecium) or move substances along the outer surface of the cell (for example, the cilia of cells lining the Fallopian tubes that move the ovum toward the uterus, or cilia lining the cells of the respiratory tract that move particulate matter toward the throat that mucus has trapped).

The Endomembrane System

The endomembrane system (endo = within) is a group of membranes and organelles (Figure 13) in eukaryotic cells that work together to modify, package, and transport lipids and proteins. It includes the nuclear envelope, lysosomes, vesicles, the endoplasmic reticulum, and Golgi apparatus, which we will cover shortly. Although not technically within the cell, the plasma membrane is included in the endomembrane system because, as you will see, it interacts with the other endomembranous organelles.

The Nucleus

Typically, the nucleus is the most prominent organelle in a cell (Figure 7). The nucleus (plural = nuclei) houses the cell’s DNA in the form of chromatin and directs the synthesis of ribosomes and proteins. Let us look at it in more detail (Figure 10).

The nuclear envelope is a double-membrane structure that constitutes the outermost portion of the nucleus (Figure 10). Both the inner and outer membranes of the nuclear envelope are phospholipid bilayers.

The nuclear envelope is punctuated with pores that control the passage of ions, molecules, and RNA between the nucleoplasm and the cytoplasm.

To understand chromatin, it is helpful to first consider chromosomes. Chromosomes are structures within the nucleus that are made up of DNA, the hereditary material, and proteins. This combination of DNA and proteins is called chromatin. In eukaryotes, chromosomes are linear structures. Every species has a specific number of chromosomes in the nucleus of its body cells. For example, in humans, the chromosome number is 46, whereas in fruit flies, the chromosome number is eight.

Chromosomes are only visible and distinguishable from one another when the cell is getting ready to divide. When the cell is in the growth and maintenance phases of its life cycle, the chromosomes resemble an unwound, jumbled bunch of threads, which is the chromatin.

We already know that the nucleus directs the synthesis of ribosomes, but how does it do this? Some chromosomes have sections of DNA that encode ribosomal RNA. A darkly staining area within the nucleus, called the nucleolus (plural = nucleoli), aggregates the ribosomal RNA with associated proteins to assemble the ribosomal subunits that are then transported through the nuclear pores into the cytoplasm.

The Endoplasmic Reticulum

The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) (Figure 13) is a series of interconnected membranous tubules that collectively modify proteins and synthesize lipids. However, these two functions are performed in separate areas of the endoplasmic reticulum: the rough endoplasmic reticulum and the smooth endoplasmic reticulum, respectively.

The hollow portion of the ER tubules is called the lumen or cisternal space. The membrane of the ER, which is a phospholipid bilayer embedded with proteins, is continuous with the nuclear envelope.

The rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) is so named because the ribosomes attached to its cytoplasmic surface give it a studded appearance when viewed through an electron microscope.

The ribosomes synthesize proteins while attached to the ER, resulting in transfer of their newly synthesized proteins into the lumen of the RER where they undergo modifications such as folding or addition of sugars. The RER also makes phospholipids for cell membranes.

If the phospholipids or modified proteins are not destined to stay in the RER, they will be packaged within vesicles and transported from the RER by budding from the membrane (Figure 13). Since the RER is engaged in modifying proteins that will be secreted from the cell, it is abundant in cells that secrete proteins, such as the liver.

The smooth endoplasmic reticulum (SER) is continuous with the RER but has few or no ribosomes on its cytoplasmic surface (see Figure 7). The SER’s functions include synthesis of carbohydrates, lipids (including phospholipids), and steroid hormones; detoxification of medications and poisons; alcohol metabolism; and storage of calcium ions.

The Golgi Apparatus

We have already mentioned that vesicles can bud from the ER, but where do the vesicles go? Before reaching their final destination, the lipids or proteins within the transport vesicles need to be sorted, packaged, and tagged so that they wind up in the right place. The sorting, tagging, packaging, and distribution of lipids and proteins take place in the Golgi apparatus (also called the Golgi body), a series of flattened membranous sacs (Figure 11).

The Golgi apparatus has a receiving face near the endoplasmic reticulum and a releasing face on the side away from the ER, toward the cell membrane. The transport vesicles that form from the ER travel to the receiving face, fuse with it, and empty their contents into the lumen of the Golgi apparatus. As the proteins and lipids travel through the Golgi, they undergo further modifications. The most frequent modification is the addition of short chains of sugar molecules. The newly modified proteins and lipids are then tagged with small molecular groups so that they are routed to their proper destinations.

Finally, the modified and tagged proteins are packaged into vesicles that bud from the opposite face of the Golgi. While some of these vesicles, transport vesicles, deposit their contents into other parts of the cell where they will be used, others, secretory vesicles, fuse with the plasma membrane and release their contents outside the cell.

The amount of Golgi in different cell types again illustrates that form follows function within cells. Cells that engage in a great deal of secretory activity (such as cells of the salivary glands that secrete digestive enzymes or cells of the immune system that secrete antibodies) have an abundant number of Golgi.

In plant cells, the Golgi has an additional role of synthesizing polysaccharides, some of which are incorporated into the cell wall and some of which are used in other parts of the cell.


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 12).

Vesicles and Vacuoles

Vesicles and vacuoles are membrane-bound sacs that function in storage and transport. Vacuoles are somewhat larger than vesicles, and the membrane of a vacuole does not fuse with the membranes of other cellular components. Vesicles can fuse with other membranes within the cell system. Additionally, enzymes within plant vacuoles can break down macromolecules.

Art Connection


Ribosomes are the cellular structures responsible for protein synthesis. When viewed through an electron microscope, free ribosomes appear as either clusters or single tiny dots floating freely in the cytoplasm. Ribosomes may be attached to either the cytoplasmic side of the plasma membrane or the cytoplasmic side of the endoplasmic reticulum (Figure 7). Electron microscopy has shown that ribosomes consist of large and small subunits. Ribosomes are enzyme complexes that are responsible for protein synthesis. Because protein synthesis is essential for all cells, ribosomes are found in practically every cell, although they are smaller in prokaryotic cells. They are particularly abundant in immature red blood cells for the synthesis of hemoglobin, which functions in the transport of oxygen throughout the body.


Mitochondria (singular = mitochondrion) are often called the “powerhouses” or “energy factories” of a cell because they are responsible for making adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cell’s main energy- carrying molecule. The formation of ATP from the breakdown of glucose is known as cellular respiration. Mitochondria are oval-shaped, double-membrane organelles (Figure 14) that have their own ribosomes and DNA. Each membrane is a phospholipid bilayer embedded with proteins. The inner layer has folds called cristae, which increase the surface area of the inner membrane. The area surrounded by the folds is called the mitochondrial matrix. The cristae and the matrix have different roles in cellular respiration.

In keeping with our theme of form following function, it is important to point out that muscle cells have a very high concentration of mitochondria because muscle cells need a lot of energy to contract.


Animal Cells versus Plant Cells

Peroxisomes are small, round organelles enclosed by single membranes. They carry out oxidation reactions that break down fatty acids and amino acids. They also detoxify many poisons that may enter the body. Alcohol is detoxified by peroxisomes in liver cells. A byproduct of these oxidation reactions is hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, which is contained within the peroxisomes to prevent the chemical from causing damage to cellular components outside of the organelle. Hydrogen peroxide is safely broken down by peroxisomal enzymes into water and oxygen.

Despite their fundamental similarities, there are some striking differences between animal and plant cells (see Figure 7). Animal cells have centrioles, centrosomes (discussed under the cytoskeleton), 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.

The Cell Wall

In Figure 7b, 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 and 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, 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.


Like mitochondria, chloroplasts also have their own DNA and ribosomes. Chloroplasts function in photosynthesis and can be found in 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) can 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 15). 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.

Evolution in Action: Endosymbiosis

We have mentioned that both mitochondria and chloroplasts contain DNA and ribosomes. Have you wondered why? Stong 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-=with) 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 synthesis 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 similiar in size. We also know that mitrochondria 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 mitrochondria and the photosynthetic bacteria becoming chloroplasts.

The Central Vacuole

Previously, we mentioned vacuoles as essential components of plant cells. If you look at Figure 7, you will see that plant cells each have a large, central vacuole that occupies most of the cell. The central vacuoleplays 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. 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.

Extracellular Matrix of Animal 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 16). 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 17a).

A tight junction is a watertight seal between two adjacent animal cells (Figure 17b). 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 17c). 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 17d). Structurally, however, gap junctions and plasmodesmata differ.

This table provides the components of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells and their respective functions.

Components of Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells and Their Functions

Cell ComponentFunctionPresent in Prokaryotes?Present in Animal Cells?Present in Plant Cells?Plasma membraneSeparates cell from external environment; controls passage of organic molecules, ions, water, oxygen, and wastes into and out of the cellYesYesYesCytoplasmProvides structure to cell; site of many metabolic reactions; medium in which organelles are foundYesYesYesNucleoidLocation of DNAYesNoNoNucleusCell organelle that houses DNA and directs synthesis of ribosomes and proteinsNoYesYesRibosomesProtein synthesisYesYesYesMitochondriaATP production/cellular respirationNoYesYesPeroxisomesOxidizes and breaks down fatty acids and amino acids, and detoxifies poisonsNoYesYesVesicles and vacuolesStorage and transport; digestive function in plant cellsNoYesYesCentrosomeUnspecified role in cell division in animal cells; source of microtubules in animal cellsNoYesNoLysosomesDigestion of macromolecules; recycling of worn-out organellesNoYesNoCell wallProtection, structural support and maintenance of cell shapeYes, primarily peptidoglycan in bacteria but not ArchaeaNoYes, primarily celluloseChloroplastsPhotosynthesisNoNoYesEndoplasmic reticulumModifies proteins and synthesizes lipidsNoYesYesGolgi apparatusModifies, sorts, tags, packages, and distributes lipids and proteinsNoYesYesCytoskeletonMaintains cell’s shape, secures organelles in specific positions, allows cytoplasm and vesicles to move within the cell, and enables unicellular organisms to move independentlyYesYesYesFlagellaCellular locomotionSomeSomeNo, except for some plant spermCiliaCellular locomotion, movement of particles along extracellular surface of plasma membrane, and filtrationNoSomeNo

The Cell Membrane

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • understand the fluid mosaic model of membranes
  • describe the functions of phospholipids, proteins, and carbohydrates in membranes.

A cell’s plasma membrane defines the boundary of the cell and determines the nature of its contact with the environment. Cells exclude some substances, take in others, and excrete still others, all in controlled quantities. Plasma membranes enclose the borders of cells, but rather than being a static bag, they are dynamic and constantly in flux. The plasma membrane must be sufficiently flexible to allow certain cells, such as red blood cells and white blood cells, to change shape as they pass through narrow capillaries. These are the more obvious functions of a plasma membrane. In addition, the surface of the plasma membrane carries markers that allow cells to recognize one another, which is vital as tissues and organs form during early development and which later plays a role in the “self” versus “non-self” distinction of the immune response.

The plasma membrane also carries receptors, which are attachment sites for specific substances that interact with the cell. Each receptor is structured to bind with a specific substance. For example, surface receptors of the membrane create changes in the interior, such as changes in enzymes of metabolic pathways. These metabolic pathways might be vital for providing the cell with energy, making specific substances for the cell or breaking down cellular waste or toxins for disposal. Receptors on the plasma membrane’s exterior surface interact with hormones or neurotransmitters and allow their messages to be transmitted into the cell. Some recognition sites are used by viruses as attachment points. Although they are highly specific, pathogens like viruses may evolve to exploit receptors to gain entry to a cell by mimicking the specific substance that the receptor is meant to bind. This specificity helps to explain why human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or any of the five types of hepatitis viruses invade only specific cells.

Fluid Mosaic Model

In 1972, S. J. Singer and Garth L. Nicolson proposed a new model of the plasma membrane that, compared to earlier understanding, better explained both microscopic observations and the function of the plasma membrane. This was called the fluid mosaic model. The model has evolved somewhat over time but still best accounts for the structure and functions of the plasma membrane as we now understand them. The fluid mosaic model describes the structure of the plasma membrane as a mosaic of components—including phospholipids, cholesterol, proteins, and carbohydrates—in which the components are able to flow and change position, while maintaining the basic integrity of the membrane.

Both phospholipid molecules and embedded proteins are able to diffuse rapidly and laterally in the membrane. The fluidity of the plasma membrane is necessary for the activities of certain enzymes and transport molecules within the membrane. Plasma membranes range from 5 to 10 nm thick. As a comparison, human red blood cells, visible via light microscopy, are approximately 8 µm thick, or approximately 1,000 times thicker than a plasma membrane (Figure 18).

The plasma membrane is made up primarily of a bilayer of phospholipids with embedded proteins, carbohydrates, glycolipids, and glycoproteins, and, in animal cells, cholesterol. The amount of cholesterol in animal plasma membranes regulates the fluidity of the membrane and changes based on the temperature of the cell’s environment. In other words, cholesterol acts as antifreeze in the cell membrane and is more abundant in animals that live in cold climates.

The main fabric of the membrane is composed of two layers of phospholipid molecules, and the polar ends of these molecules (which look like a collection of balls in an artist’s rendition of the model) (Figure 18) are in contact with aqueous fluid both inside and outside the cell. Thus, both surfaces of the plasma membrane are hydrophilic. In contrast, the interior of the membrane, between its two surfaces, is a hydrophobic or nonpolar region because of the fatty acid tails. This region has no attraction for water or other polar molecules.

Proteins make up the second major chemical component of plasma membranes. Integral proteins are embedded in the plasma membrane and may span all or part of the membrane. Integral proteins may serve as channels or pumps to move materials into or out of the cell. Peripheral proteins are found on the exterior or interior surfaces of membranes, attached either to integral proteins or to phospholipid molecules. Both integral and peripheral proteins may serve as enzymes, as structural attachments for the fibers of the cytoskeleton, or as part of the cell’s recognition sites.

Carbohydrates are the third major component of plasma membranes. They are always found on the exterior surface of cells and are bound either to proteins (forming glycoproteins) or to lipids (forming glycolipids). These carbohydrate chains may consist of 2 to 60 monosaccharide units and may be either straight or branched. Along with peripheral proteins, carbohydrates form specialized sites on the cell surface that allow cells to recognize each other.

Evololution in Action: How Viruses Infect Specific Organs

Specific glycoprotein molecules exposed on the surface of the cell membranes of host cells are exploited by many viruses to infect specific organs. For example, HIV is able to penetrate the plasma membranes of specific kinds of white blood cells called T-helper cells and monocytes. as well as some cells of the central nervous system. The hepatitis virus attacks only liver cells.

These viruses are able to invade these cells because the cells have binding sites on their surfaces that the viruses have exploited with equally specific glycoproteins in their coats, (Figure 19). The cell is tricked by the mimicry of the virus coat molecules, and the virus can enter the cell. Other recognition sites on the virus’s surface interact with the human immune system, prompting the body to produce antibodies. Antibodies are made in response to the antigens (or proteins associated with invasive pathogens). These same sites serve as places for antibodies to attach and either destroy or inhibit the activity of the virus. Unfortunately, these sites on HIV are encoded by genes that change quickly, making the production of an effective vaccine against the virus very difficult. The virus population within an infected individual quickly evolves through mutation into different populations, or variants, distinguished by differences in these recognition sites. This rapid change of viral surface markers decreases the effectiveness of the person's immune system in attacking the virus, because the antibodies will not recognize the new variations of the surface patterns.

Passive Transport

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • explain why and how passive transport occurs
  • understand the processes of osmosis and diffusion
  • define tonicity and describe its relevance to passive transport.

Plasma membranes must allow certain substances to enter and leave a cell, while preventing harmful material from entering and essential material from leaving. In other words, plasma membranes are selectively permeable—they allow some substances through but not others. If they were to lose this selectivity, the cell would no longer be able to sustain itself, and it would be destroyed. Some cells require larger amounts of specific substances than do other cells; they must have a way of obtaining these materials from the extracellular fluids. This may happen passively, as certain materials move back and forth, or the cell may have special mechanisms that ensure transport. Most cells expend most of their energy, in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), to create and maintain an uneven distribution of ions on the opposite sides of their membranes. The structure of the plasma membrane contributes to these functions, but it also presents some problems.

The most direct forms of membrane transport are passive. Passive transport is a naturally occurring phenomenon and does not require the cell to expend energy to accomplish the movement. In passive transport, substances move from an area of higher concentration to an area of lower concentration in a process called diffusion. A physical space in which there is a different concentration of a single substance is said to have a concentration gradient.

Selective Permeability

Plasma membranes are asymmetric, meaning that despite the mirror image formed by the phospholipids, the interior of the membrane is not identical to the exterior of the membrane. Integral proteins that act as channels or pumps work in one direction. Carbohydrates, attached to lipids or proteins, are also found on the exterior surface of the plasma membrane. These carbohydrate complexes help the cell bind substances that the cell needs in the extracellular fluid. This adds considerably to the selective nature of plasma membranes.

Recall that plasma membranes have hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions. This characteristic helps the movement of certain materials through the membrane and hinders the movement of others. Lipid- soluble material can easily slip through the hydrophobic lipid core of the membrane. Substances such as the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K readily pass through the plasma membranes in the digestive tract and other tissues. Fat-soluble drugs also gain easy entry into cells and are readily transported into the body’s tissues and organs. Molecules of oxygen and carbon dioxide have no charge and pass through by simple diffusion.

Polar substances, with the exception of water, present problems for the membrane. While some polar molecules connect easily with the outside of a cell, they cannot readily pass through the lipid core of the plasma membrane. Additionally, whereas small ions could easily slip through the spaces in the mosaic of the membrane, their charge prevents them from doing so. Ions such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and chloride must have a special means of penetrating plasma membranes. Simple sugars and amino acids also need help with transport across plasma membranes.


Diffusion is a passive process of transport. A single substance tends to move from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration until the concentration is equal across the space. You are familiar with diffusion of substances through the air. For example, think about someone opening a bottle of perfume in a room filled with people. The perfume is at its highest concentration in the bottle and is at its lowest at the edges of the room. The perfume vapor will diffuse, or spread away, from the bottle, and gradually more and more people will smell the perfume as it spreads. Materials move within the cell’s cytosol by diffusion, and certain materials move through the plasma membrane by diffusion (Figure 20). Diffusion expends no energy. Rather the different concentrations of materials in different areas are a form of potential energy, and diffusion is the dissipation of that potential energy as materials move down their concentration gradients, from high to low.

Each separate substance in a medium, such as the extracellular fluid, has its own concentration gradient, independent of the concentration gradients of other materials. Additionally, each substance will diffuse according to that gradient.

Several factors affect the rate of diffusion:

  • Extent of the concentration gradient: The greater the difference in concentration, the more rapid the diffusion. The closer the distribution of the material gets to equilibrium, the slower the rate of diffusion becomes.y
  • Mass of the molecules diffusing: More massive molecules move more slowly, because it is more difficult for them to move between the molecules of the substance they are moving through; therefore, they diffuse more slowly.
  • Temperature: Higher temperatures increase the energy and therefore the movement of the molecules, increasing the rate of diffusion.
  • Solvent density: As the density of the solvent increases, the rate of diffusion decreases. The molecules slow down because they have a more difficult time getting through the denser medium.

For an animation of the diffusion process in action, view this short video on cell membrane transport: l/passive_trnsprt .

Facilitated Transport

In facilitated transport, also called facilitated diffusion, material moves across the plasma membrane with the assistance of transmembrane proteins down a concentration gradient (from high to low concentration) without the expenditure of cellular energy. However, the substances that undergo facilitated transport would otherwise not diffuse easily or quickly across the plasma membrane. The solution to moving polar substances and other substances across the plasma membrane rests in the proteins that span its surface. The material being transported is first attached to protein or glycoprotein receptors on the exterior surface of the plasma membrane. This allows the material that is needed by the cell to be removed from the extracellular fluid. The substances are then passed to specific integral proteins that facilitate their passage, because they form channels or pores that allow certain substances to pass through the membrane. The integral proteins involved in facilitated transport are collectively referred to as transport proteins, and they function as either channels for the material or carriers.


Osmosis is the diffusion of water through a semipermeable membrane according to the concentration gradient of water across the membrane. Whereas diffusion transports material across membranes and within cells, osmosis transports only water across a membrane and the membrane limits the diffusion of solutes in the water. Osmosis is a special case of diffusion. Water, like other substances, moves from an area of higher concentration to one of lower concentration. Imagine a beaker with a semipermeable membrane, separating the two sides or halves (Figure 21). On both sides of the membrane, the water level is the same, but there are different concentrations on each side of a dissolved substance, or solute, that cannot cross the membrane. If the volume of the water is the same, but the concentrations of solute are different, then there are also different concentrations of water, the solvent, on either side of the membrane.

A principle of diffusion is that the molecules move around and will spread evenly throughout the medium if they can. However, only the material capable of getting through the membrane will diffuse through it. In this example, the solute cannot diffuse through the membrane, but the water can. Water has a concentration gradient in this system. Therefore, water will diffuse down its concentration gradient, crossing the membrane to the side where it is less concentrated. This diffusion of water through the membrane—osmosis—will continue until the concentration gradient of water goes to zero. Osmosis proceeds constantly in living systems.


Tonicity describes the amount of solute in a solution. The measure of the tonicity of a solution, or the total amount of solutes dissolved in a specific amount of solution, is called its osmolarity. Three terms—hypotonic, isotonic, and hypertonic—are used to relate the osmolarity of a cell to the osmolarity of the extracellular fluid that contains the cells. In a hypotonic solution, such as tap water, the extracellular fluid has a lower concentration of solutes than the fluid inside the cell, and water enters the cell. (In living systems, the point of reference is always the cytoplasm, so the prefix hypo– means that the extracellular fluid has a lower concentration of solutes, or a lower osmolarity, than the cell cytoplasm.) It also means that the extracellular fluid has a higher concentration of water than does the cell. In this situation, water will follow its concentration gradient and enter the cell. This may cause an animal cell to burst, or lyse.

In a hypertonic solution (the prefix hyper– refers to the extracellular fluid having a higher concentration of solutes than the cell’s cytoplasm), the fluid contains less water than the cell does, such as seawater. Because the cell has a lower concentration of solutes, the water will leave the cell. In effect, the solute is drawing the water out of the cell. This may cause an animal cell to shrivel, or crenate.

In an isotonic solution, the extracellular fluid has the same osmolarity as the cell. If the concentration of solutes of the cell matches that of the extracellular fluid, there will be no net movement of water into or out of the cell. Blood cells in hypertonic, isotonic, and hypotonic solutions take on characteristic appearances (Figure 22).

Art Connection

Some organisms, such as plants, fungi, bacteria, and some protists, have cell walls that surround the plasma membrane and prevent cell lysis. The plasma membrane can only expand to the limit of the cell wall, so the cell will not lyse. In fact, the cytoplasm in plants is always slightly hypertonic compared to the cellular environment, and water will always enter a cell if water is available. This influx of water produces turgor pressure, which stiffens the cell walls of the plant (Figure 23). In nonwoody plants, turgor pressure supports the plant. If the plant cells become hypertonic, as occurs in drought or if a plant is not watered adequately, water will leave the cell. Plants lose turgor pressure in this condition and wilt.

Active Transport

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • understand how electrochemical gradients affect ions
  • describe endocytosis, including phagorcytosis, pinocytosis, and receptor-medicated endocytosis
  • understand the process of exocytosis.

Active transport mechanisms require the use of the cell’s energy, usually in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). If a substance must move into the cell against its concentration gradient—that is, if the concentration of the substance inside the cell must be greater than its concentration in the extracellular fluid—the cell must use energy to move the substance. Some active transport mechanisms move small- molecular-weight material, such as ions, through the membrane.

In addition to moving small ions and molecules through the membrane, cells also need to remove and take in larger molecules and particles. Some cells are even capable of engulfing entire unicellular microorganisms. You might have correctly hypothesized that the uptake and release of large particles by the cell requires energy. A large particle, however, cannot pass through the membrane, even with energy supplied by the cell.

Electrochemical Gradient

We have discussed simple concentration gradients—differential concentrations of a substance across a space or a membrane—but in living systems, gradients are more complex. Because cells contain proteins, most of which are negatively charged, and because ions move into and out of cells, there is an electrical gradient, a difference of charge, across the plasma membrane. The interior of living cells is electrically negative with respect to the extracellular fluid in which they are bathed; at the same time, cells have higher concentrations of potassium (K+) and lower concentrations of sodium (Na+) than does the extracellular fluid. Thus, in a living cell, the concentration gradient and electrical gradient of Na+ promotes diffusion of the ion into the cell, and the electrical gradient of Na+ (a positive ion) tends to drive it inward to the negatively charged interior. The situation is more complex, however, for other elements such as potassium. The electrical gradient of K+ promotes diffusion of the ion into the cell, but the concentration gradient of K+ promotes diffusion out of the cell (Figure 24). The combined gradient that affects an ion is called its electrochemical gradient, and it is especially important to muscle and nerve cells.

Moving Against a Gradient

To move substances against a concentration or an electrochemical gradient, the cell must use energy. This energy is harvested from ATP that is generated through cellular metabolism. Active transport mechanisms, collectively called pumps or carrier proteins, work against electrochemical gradients. With the exception of ions, small substances constantly pass through plasma membranes. Active transport maintains concentrations of ions and other substances needed by living cells in the face of these passive changes. Much of a cell’s supply of metabolic energy may be spent maintaining these processes. Because active transport mechanisms depend on cellular metabolism for energy, they are sensitive to many metabolic poisons that interfere with the supply of ATP.

Two mechanisms exist for the transport of small-molecular-weight material and macromolecules. Primary active transport moves ions across a membrane and creates a difference in charge across that membrane. The primary active transport system uses ATP to move a substance, such as an ion, into the cell, and often at the same time, a second substance is moved out of the cell. The sodium-potassium pump, an important pump in animal cells, expends energy to move potassium ions into the cell and a different number of sodium ions out of the cell (Figure 25). The action of this pump results in a concentration and charge difference across the membrane.

Secondary active transport describes the movement of material using the energy of the electrochemical gradient established by primary active transport. Using the energy of the electrochemical gradient created by the primary active transport system, other substances such as amino acids and glucose can be brought into the cell through membrane channels. ATP itself is formed through secondary active transport using a hydrogen ion gradient in the mitochondrion.


Endocytosis is a type of active transport that moves particles, such as large molecules, parts of cells, and even whole cells, into a cell. There are different variations of endocytosis, but all share a common characteristic: The plasma membrane of the cell invaginates, forming a pocket around the target particle. The pocket pinches off, resulting in the particle being contained in a newly created vacuole that is formed from the plasma membrane.

Phagocytosis is the process by which large particles, such as cells, are taken in by a cell. For example, when microorganisms invade the human body, a type of white blood cell called a neutrophil removes the invader through this process, surrounding and engulfing the microorganism, which is then destroyed by the neutrophil (Figure 26).

A variation of endocytosis is called pinocytosis. This literally means “cell drinking” and was named at a time when the assumption was that the cell was purposefully taking in extracellular fluid. In reality, this process takes in solutes that the cell needs from the extracellular fluid (Figure 26).

A targeted variation of endocytosis employs binding proteins in the plasma membrane that are specific for certain substances (Figure 26). The particles bind to the proteins and the plasma membrane invaginates, bringing the substance and the proteins into the cell. If passage across the membrane of the target of receptor-mediated endocytosis is ineffective, it will not be removed from the tissue fluids or blood. Instead, it will stay in those fluids and increase in concentration. Some human diseases are caused by a failure of receptor-mediated endocytosis. For example, the form of cholesterol termed low- density lipoprotein or LDL (also referred to as “bad” cholesterol) is removed from the blood by receptor- mediated endocytosis. In the human genetic disease familial hypercholesterolemia, the LDL receptors are defective or missing entirely. People with this condition have life-threatening levels of cholesterol in their blood, because their cells cannot clear the chemical from their blood.

See receptor-mediated endocytosis in action:


In contrast to these methods of moving material into a cell is the process of exocytosis. Exocytosis is the opposite of the processes discussed above in that its purpose is to expel material from the cell into the extracellular fluid. A particle enveloped in membrane fuses with the interior of the plasma membrane. This fusion opens the membranous envelope to the exterior of the cell, and the particle is expelled into the extracellular space (Figure 27).

Key Terms

active transport the method of transporting material that requires energy

cell wall a rigid cell covering made of cellulose in plants, peptidoglycan in bacteria, non- peptidoglycan compounds in Archaea, and chitin in fungi that protects the cell, provides structural support, and gives shape to the cell

central vacuole a large plant cell organelle that acts as a storage compartment, water reservoir, and site of macromolecule degradation

chloroplast a plant cell organelle that carries out photosynthesis

cilium (plural: cilia) a short, hair-like structure that extends from the plasma membrane in large numbers and is used to move an entire cell or move substances along the outer surface of the cell

concentration gradient an area of high concentration across from an area of low concentration

cytoplasm the entire region between the plasma membrane and the nuclear envelope, consisting of organelles suspended in the gel-like cytosol, the cytoskeleton, and various chemicals

cytoskeleton the network of protein fibers that collectively maintains the shape of the cell, secures some organelles in specific positions, allows cytoplasm and vesicles to move within the cell, and enables unicellular organisms to move

cytosol the gel-like material of the cytoplasm in which cell structures are suspended

desmosome a linkage between adjacent epithelial cells that forms when cadherins in the plasma membrane attach to intermediate filaments

diffusion a passive process of transport of low-molecular-weight material down its concentration gradient

electrochemical gradient a gradient produced by the combined forces of the electrical gradient and the chemical gradient

endocytosis a type of active transport that moves substances, including fluids and particles, into a cell

endomembrane system the group of organelles and membranes in eukaryotic cells that work together to modify, package, and transport lipids and proteins

endoplasmic reticulum (ER) a series of interconnected membranous structures within eukaryotic cells that collectively modify proteins and synthesize lipids

eukaryotic cell a cell that has a membrane-bound nucleus and several other membrane-bound compartments or sacs

exocytosis a process of passing material out of a cell

extracellular matrix the material, primarily collagen, glycoproteins, and proteoglycans, secreted from animal cells that holds cells together as a tissue, allows cells to communicate with each other, and provides mechanical protection and anchoring for cells in the tissue

facilitated transport a process by which material moves down a concentration gradient (from high to low concentration) using integral membrane proteins

flagellum (plural: flagella) the long, hair-like structure that extends from the plasma membrane and is used to move the cell

fluid mosaic model a model of the structure of the plasma membrane as a mosaic of components, including phospholipids, cholesterol, proteins, and glycolipids, resulting in a fluid rather than static character

Golgi apparatus a eukaryotic organelle made up of a series of stacked membranes that sorts, tags, and packages lipids and proteins for distribution

gap junction a channel between two adjacent animal cells that allows ions, nutrients, and other low- molecular-weight substances to pass between the cells, enabling the cells to communicate

hypertonic describes a solution in which extracellular fluid has higher osmolarity than the fluid inside the cell

hypotonic describes a solution in which extracellular fluid has lower osmolarity than the fluid inside the cell

isotonic describes a solution in which the extracellular fluid has the same osmolarity as the fluid inside the cell

lysosome an organelle in an animal cell that functions as the cell’s digestive component; it breaks down proteins, polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids, and even worn-out organelles

microscope the instrument that magnifies an object

mitochondria (singular: mitochondrion) the cellular organelles responsible for carrying out cellular respiration, resulting in the production of ATP, the cell’s main energy-carrying molecule

nuclear envelope the double-membrane structure that constitutes the outermost portion of the nucleus

nucleolus the darkly staining body within the nucleus that is responsible for assembling ribosomal subunits

nucleus the cell organelle that houses the cell’s DNA and directs the synthesis of ribosomes and proteins

organelle a membrane-bound compartment or sac within a cell

osmolarity the total amount of substances dissolved in a specific amount of solution

osmosis the transport of water through a semipermeable membrane from an area of high water concentration to an area of low water concentration across a membrane

passive transport a method of transporting material that does not require energy

peroxisome a small, round organelle that contains hydrogen peroxide, oxidizes fatty acids and amino acids, and detoxifies many poisons

phagocytosis a process that takes macromolecules that the cell needs from the extracellular fluid; a variation of endocytosis

pinocytosis a process that takes solutes that the cell needs from the extracellular fluid; a variation of endocytosis

plasma membrane a phospholipid bilayer with embedded (integral) or attached (peripheral) proteins that separates the internal contents of the cell from its surrounding environment

plasmodesma (plural: plasmodesmata) a channel that passes between the cell walls of adjacent plant cells, connects their cytoplasm, and allows materials to be transported from cell to cell

prokaryotic cell a unicellular organism that lacks a nucleus or any other membrane-bound organelle

receptor-mediated endocytosis a variant of endocytosis that involves the use of specific binding proteins in the plasma membrane for specific molecules or particles

ribosome a cellular organelle that carries out protein synthesis

rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) the region of the endoplasmic reticulum that is studded with ribosomes and engages in protein modification

selectively permeable the characteristic of a membrane that allows some substances through but not others

smooth endoplasmic reticulum (SER) the region of the endoplasmic reticulum that has few or no ribosomes on its cytoplasmic surface and synthesizes carbohydrates, lipids, and steroid hormones; detoxifies chemicals like pesticides, preservatives, medications, and environmental pollutants; and stores calcium ions

solute a substance dissolved in another to form a solution

tight junction a firm seal between two adjacent animal cells created by protein adherence

tonicity the amount of solute in a solution.

unified cell theory the biological concept that states that all organisms are composed of one or more cells, the cell is the basic unit of life, and new cells arise from existing cells

vacuole a membrane-bound sac, somewhat larger than a vesicle, that functions in cellular storage and transport

vesicle a small, membrane-bound sac that functions in cellular storage and transport; its membrane is capable of fusing with the plasma membrane and the membranes of the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus

Chapter Summary

How Cells Are Studied

A cell is the smallest unit of life. Most cells are so small that they cannot be viewed with the naked eye. Therefore, scientists must use microscopes to study cells. Electron microscopes provide higher magnification, higher resolution, and more detail than light microscopes. The unified cell theory states that all organisms are composed of one or more cells, the cell is the basic unit of life, and new cells arise from existing cells.

Comparing Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells

Prokaryotes are predominantly single-celled organisms of the domains Bacteria and Archaea. All prokaryotes have plasma membranes, cytoplasm, ribosomes, a cell wall, DNA, and lack membrane- bound organelles. Many also have polysaccharide capsules. Prokaryotic cells range in diameter from 0.1 to 5.0 µm.

Like a prokaryotic cell, a eukaryotic cell has a plasma membrane, cytoplasm, and ribosomes, but a eukaryotic cell is typically larger than a prokaryotic cell, has a true nucleus (meaning its DNA is surrounded by a membrane), and has other membrane-bound organelles that allow for compartmentalization of functions. Eukaryotic cells tend to be 10 to 100 times the size of prokaryotic cells.

Eukaryotic Cells

Like a prokaryotic cell, a eukaryotic cell has a plasma membrane, cytoplasm, and ribosomes, but a eukaryotic cell is typically larger than a prokaryotic cell, has a true nucleus (meaning its DNA is surrounded by a membrane), and has other membrane-bound organelles that allow for compartmentalization of functions. The plasma membrane is a phospholipid bilayer embedded with proteins. The nucleolus within the nucleus is the site for ribosome assembly. Ribosomes are found in the cytoplasm or are attached to the cytoplasmic side of the plasma membrane or endoplasmic reticulum. They perform protein synthesis. Mitochondria perform cellular respiration and produce ATP. Peroxisomes break down fatty acids, amino acids, and some toxins. Vesicles and vacuoles are storage and transport compartments. In plant cells, vacuoles also help break down macromolecules.

Animal cells also have a centrosome and lysosomes. The centrosome has two bodies, the centrioles, with an unknown role in cell division. Lysosomes are the digestive organelles of animal cells.

Plant cells have a cell wall, chloroplasts, and a central vacuole. The plant cell wall, whose primary component is cellulose, protects the cell, provides structural support, and gives shape to the cell.

Photosynthesis takes place in chloroplasts. The central vacuole expands, enlarging the cell without the need to produce more cytoplasm.

The endomembrane system includes the nuclear envelope, the endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, lysosomes, vesicles, as well as the plasma membrane. These cellular components work together to modify, package, tag, and transport membrane lipids and proteins.

The cytoskeleton has three different types of protein elements. Microfilaments provide rigidity and shape to the cell and facilitate cellular movements. Intermediate filaments bear tension and anchor the nucleus and other organelles in place. Microtubules help the cell resist compression, serve as tracks for motor proteins that move vesicles through the cell, and pull replicated chromosomes to opposite ends of a dividing cell. They are also the structural elements of centrioles, flagella, and cilia.

Animal cells communicate through their extracellular matrices and are connected to each other by tight junctions, desmosomes, and gap junctions. Plant cells are connected and communicate with each other by plasmodesmata.

The Cell Membrane

The modern understanding of the plasma membrane is referred to as the fluid mosaic model. The plasma membrane is composed of a bilayer of phospholipids, with their hydrophobic fatty acid tails in contact with each other. The landscape of the membrane is studded with proteins, some of which span the membrane. Some of these proteins serve to transport materials into or out of the cell. Carbohydrates are attached to some of the proteins and lipids on the outward-facing surface of the membrane. These form complexes that function to identify the cell to other cells. The fluid nature of the membrane owes itself to the configuration of the fatty acid tails, the presence of cholesterol embedded in the membrane (in animal cells), and the mosaic nature of the proteins and protein-carbohydrate complexes, which are not firmly fixed in place. Plasma membranes enclose the borders of cells, but rather than being a static bag, they are dynamic and constantly in flux.

Passive Transport

The passive forms of transport, diffusion and osmosis, move material of small molecular weight. Substances diffuse from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration, and this process continues until the substance is evenly distributed in a system. In solutions of more than one substance, each type of molecule diffuses according to its own concentration gradient. Many factors can affect the rate of diffusion, including concentration gradient, the sizes of the particles that are diffusing, and the temperature of the system.

In living systems, diffusion of substances into and out of cells is mediated by the plasma membrane. Some materials diffuse readily through the membrane, but others are hindered, and their passage is only made possible by protein channels and carriers. The chemistry of living things occurs in aqueous solutions, and balancing the concentrations of those solutions is an ongoing problem. In living systems, diffusion of some substances would be slow or difficult without membrane proteins.

Active Transport

The combined gradient that affects an ion includes its concentration gradient and its electrical gradient. Living cells need certain substances in concentrations greater than they exist in the extracellular space. Moving substances up their electrochemical gradients requires energy from the cell. Active transport uses energy stored in ATP to fuel the transport. Active transport of small-molecular-size material uses integral proteins in the cell membrane to move the material—these proteins are analogous to pumps. Some pumps, which carry out primary active transport, couple directly with ATP to drive their action. In secondary transport, energy from primary transport can be used to move another substance into the cell and up its concentration gradient.

Endocytosis methods require the direct use of ATP to fuel the transport of large particles such as macromolecules; parts of cells or whole cells can be engulfed by other cells in a process called phagocytosis. In phagocytosis, a portion of the membrane invaginates and flows around the particle, eventually pinching off and leaving the particle wholly enclosed by an envelope of plasma membrane. Vacuoles are broken down by the cell, with the particles used as food or dispatched in some other way. Pinocytosis is a similar process on a smaller scale. The cell expels waste and other particles through the reverse process, exocytosis. Wastes are moved outside the cell, pushing a membranous vesicle to the plasma membrane, allowing the vesicle to fuse with the membrane and incorporating itself into the membrane structure, releasing its contents to the exterior of the cell.

Art Connection Questions

1.  Figure 7 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?

2.  Figure 13 Why does the cis face of the Golgi not face the plasma membrane?

3.  Figure 22 A doctor injects a patient with what he thinks is isotonic saline solution. The patient dies, and autopsy reveals that many red blood cells have been destroyed. Do you think the solution the doctor injected was really isotonic?

Review Questions

1. When viewing a specimen through a light microscope, scientists use _____ to distinguish the individual components of cells.

a. a beam of electrons

b. radioactive isotopes

c. special stains

d. high temperatures

2. The is the basic unit of life. 

a. cell

b. tissue

c. organ

d. lysosome

3. Which of these do all prokaryotes and eukaryotes share?

a. nuclear envelope

b. cell walls

c. organelles

d. plasma membrane

4.  A typical prokaryotic cell_  compared to a eukaryotic cell.

a. is smaller in size by a factor of 100

b. is similar in size

c. is smaller in size by a factor of one million

d. is larger in size by a factor of 10

5. Which of the following is found both in eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells?

a. nucleus

b. mitochondrion

c. vacuole

d. ribosome

6. Which of the following is not a component of the endomembrane system?

a. mitochondrion

b. Golgi apparatus

c. endoplasmic reticulum

d. lysosome

7. Which plasma membrane component can be either found on its surface or embedded in the membrane structure?

a. protein

b. cholesterol

c. carbohydrates

d. phospholipid

8. The tails of the phospholipids of the plasma organism membrane are composed of and are:

a. phosphate groups; hydrophobic

b. fatty acid groups; hydrophilic

c. phosphate groups; hydrophilic

d. fatty acid groups; hydrophobic

9. Water moves via osmosis

a. throughout the cytoplasm

b. from an area with a high concentration of other solutes to a lower one

c. from an area with a low concentration of solutes to an area with a higher one

d. from an area with a low concentration of water to one of higher concentration

10. The principal force driving movement in diffusion is

a. temperature

b. particle size

c. concentration gradient

d. membrane surface area

11. Active transport must function continuously because

a. plasma membranes wear out

b. cells must be in constant motion

c. facilitated transport opposes active transport

d. diffusion is constantly moving the solutes in the other direction

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of light, transmission, and scanning electron microscopes?
  2. Describe the structures that are characteristic of a prokaryote cell.
  3. In the context of cell biology, what do we mean by form follows function? What are at least two examples of this concept?
  4. Why is it advantageous for the cell membrane to be fluid in nature?
  5. Why does osmosis occur?

Licenses and Attributions

“Cell Structure and Function” from Concepts of Biology by OpenStax College is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. © 2013, Rice University. Download for free at


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