By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:
- Describe the structure of eukaryotic cells
- Compare animal cells with plant cells
- State the role of the plasma membrane
- Summarize the functions of the major cell organelles
Have you ever heard the phrase “form follows function?” It’s a philosophy that many industries follow. In architecture, this means that buildings should be constructed to support the activities that will be carried out inside them. For example, a skyscraper should include several elevator banks. A hospital should have its emergency room easily accessible.
Our natural world also utilizes the principle of form following function, especially in cell biology, and this will become clear as we explore eukaryotic cells (Figure 4.8). Unlike prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells have: 1) a membrane-bound nucleus; 2) numerous membrane-bound organelles such as the endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, chloroplasts, mitochondria, and others; and 3) several rod-shaped chromosomes. Because a membrane surrounds a eukaryotic cell’s nucleus, it has a “true nucleus.” The word “organelle” means “little organ,” and as we already mentioned, organelles have specialized cellular functions, just as your body’s organs have specialized functions. Eukaryotic cells are also, on average, about ten times larger than prokaryotic cells. Eukaryotic organisms include plants, animals, fungi, and protists.
At this point, it should be clear to you that eukaryotic cells have a more complex structure than prokaryotic cells. Organelles allow different functions to be compartmentalized in different areas of the cell. Before turning to organelles, let’s first examine two important components of the cell: the plasma membrane and the cytoplasm.
If the nucleolus were not able to carry out its function, what other cellular organelles would be affected?
The Plasma Membrane
Like prokaryotes, eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane (Figure 4.9), a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins that separates the internal contents of the cell from its surrounding environment. A phospholipid is a lipid molecule with two fatty acid chains and a phosphate-containing group. The plasma membrane controls the passage of organic molecules, ions, water, and oxygen into and out of the cell. Wastes (such as carbon dioxide and ammonia) also leave the cell by passing through the plasma membrane. The plasma membrane also allows the cell to interact with and respond to its environment.
The plasma membranes of cells that specialize in absorption fold into fingerlike projections that we call microvilli (singular = microvillus) (Figure 4.10). These work to increase surface area. Such cells typically line the small intestine, the organ that absorbs nutrients from digested food. This is an excellent example of form following function. People with celiac disease have an immune response to gluten, which is a protein 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 is the cell’s entire region between the plasma membrane and the nuclear envelope (a structure we will discuss shortly). It is comprised of organelles suspended in the gel-like cytosol, the cytoskeleton, and various chemicals (Figure 4.8). Even though the cytoplasm consists of 70 to 80 percent water, it has a semi-solid consistency, which comes from the proteins within it. However, proteins are not the only organic molecules in the cytoplasm. Glucose and other simple sugars, polysaccharides, amino acids, nucleic acids, fatty acids, and derivatives of glycerol are also there. Ions of sodium, potassium, calcium, and many other elements also dissolve in the cytoplasm. Many metabolic reactions, including protein synthesis, take place in the cytoplasm.
Typically, the nucleus is the most prominent organelle in a cell (Figure 4.8). The nucleus (plural = nuclei) houses the cell’s DNA and directs the synthesis of ribosomes and proteins. Let’s look at it in more detail (Figure 4.11).
The Nuclear Envelope
The nuclear envelope is a double-membrane structure that constitutes the nucleus’s outermost portion (Figure 4.11). Both the nuclear envelope’s inner and outer membranes are phospholipid bilayers.
The nuclear envelope is punctuated with pores that control the passage of ions, molecules, and RNA between the nucleoplasm and cytoplasm. The nucleoplasm is the semi-solid fluid inside the nucleus, where we find the chromatin and the nucleolus.
Chromatin and Chromosomes
To understand chromatin, it is helpful to first explore chromosomes, structures within the nucleus that are made up of DNA, the hereditary material. You may remember that in prokaryotes, DNA is organized into a single circular chromosome. In eukaryotes, chromosomes are linear structures. Every eukaryotic species has a specific number of chromosomes in the nucleus of each cell. For example, in humans, the chromosome number is 46, while in fruit flies, it 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, proteins attach to chromosomes, and they resemble an unwound, jumbled bunch of threads. We call these unwound protein-chromosome complexes chromatin (Figure 4.12). Chromatin describes the material that makes up the chromosomes both when condensed and decondensed.
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 out through the pores in the nuclear envelope to the cytoplasm.
Ribosomes are the cellular structures responsible for protein synthesis. When we view them through an electron microscope, ribosomes appear either as clusters (polyribosomes) or single tiny dots that float freely in the cytoplasm. They may be attached to the plasma membrane’s cytoplasmic side or the endoplasmic reticulum’s cytoplasmic side and the nuclear envelope’s outer membrane (Figure 4.8). Electron microscopy shows us that ribosomes, which are large protein and RNA complexes, consist of two subunits, large and small (Figure 4.13). Ribosomes receive their “orders” for protein synthesis from the nucleus, where the DNA transcribes into messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA travels to the ribosomes, which translate the code provided by the sequence of the nitrogenous bases in the mRNA into a specific order of amino acids in a protein. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
Because protein synthesis is an essential function of all cells (including enzymes, hormones, antibodies, pigments, structural components, and surface receptors), there are ribosomes in practically every cell. Ribosomes are particularly abundant in cells that synthesize large amounts of protein. For example, the pancreas is responsible for creating several digestive enzymes and the cells that produce these enzymes contain many ribosomes. Thus, we see another example of form following function.
Scientists often call mitochondria (singular = mitochondrion) “powerhouses” or “energy factories” of both plant and animal cells because they are responsible for making adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cell’s main energy-carrying molecule. ATP represents the cell’s short-term stored energy. Cellular respiration is the process of making ATP using the chemical energy in glucose and other nutrients. In mitochondria, this process uses oxygen and produces carbon dioxide as a waste product. In fact, the carbon dioxide that you exhale with every breath comes from the cellular reactions that produce carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
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 that produce ATP. Your muscle cells need considerable energy to keep your body moving. When your cells don’t get enough oxygen, they do not make much ATP. Instead, producing lactic acid accompanies the small amount of ATP they make in the absence of oxygen.
Mitochondria are oval-shaped, double membrane organelles (Figure 4.14) that have their own ribosomes and DNA. Each membrane is a phospholipid bilayer embedded with proteins. The inner layer has folds called cristae. We call the area surrounded by the folds the mitochondrial matrix. The cristae and the matrix have different roles in cellular respiration.
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. (Many of these oxidation reactions release hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, which would be damaging to cells; however, when these reactions are confined to peroxisomes, enzymes safely break down the H2O2 into oxygen and water.) For example, peroxisomes in liver cells detoxify alcohol. Glyoxysomes, which are specialized peroxisomes in plants, are responsible for converting stored fats into sugars. Plant cells contain many different types of peroxisomes that play a role in metabolism, pathogen defense, and stress response, to mention a few.
Vesicles and Vacuoles
Vesicles and vacuoles are membrane-bound sacs that function in storage and transport. Other than the fact that vacuoles are somewhat larger than vesicles, there is a very subtle distinction between them. Vesicle membranes can fuse with either the plasma membrane or other membrane systems within the cell. Additionally, some agents such as enzymes within plant vacuoles break down macromolecules. The vacuole’s membrane does not fuse with the membranes of other cellular components.
Animal Cells versus Plant Cells
At this point, you know that each eukaryotic cell has a plasma membrane, cytoplasm, a nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria, peroxisomes, and in some, vacuoles, but there are some striking differences between animal and plant cells. While both animal and plant cells have microtubule organizing centers (MTOCs), animal cells also have centrioles associated with the MTOC: a complex we call the centrosome. Animal cells each have a centrosome and lysosomes, whereas most plant cells do not. Plant cells have a cell wall, chloroplasts and other specialized plastids, and a large central vacuole, whereas animal cells do not.
The centrosome is a microtubule-organizing center found near the nuclei of animal cells. It contains a pair of centrioles, two structures that lie perpendicular to each other (Figure 4.15). Each centriole is a cylinder of nine triplets of microtubules.
The centrosome (the organelle where all microtubules originate) replicates itself before a cell divides, and the centrioles appear to have some role in pulling the duplicated chromosomes to opposite ends of the dividing cell. However, the centriole’s exact function in cell division isn’t clear, because cells that have had the centrosome removed can still divide, and plant cells, which lack centrosomes, are capable of cell division.
Animal cells have another set of organelles that most plant cells do not: lysosomes. The lysosomes are the cell’s “garbage disposal.” In plant cells, the digestive processes take place in vacuoles. Enzymes within the lysosomes aid in breaking down proteins, polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids, and even worn-out organelles. These enzymes are active at a much lower pH than the cytoplasm’s. Therefore, the pH within lysosomes is more acidic than the cytoplasm’s pH. Many reactions that take place in the cytoplasm could not occur at a low pH, so again, the advantage of compartmentalizing the eukaryotic cell into organelles is apparent.
The Cell Wall
If you examine Figure 4.8, the plant cell diagram, you will see a structure external to the plasma membrane. This is the cell wall, a rigid covering that protects the cell, provides structural support, and gives shape to the cell. Fungal and some protistan cells also have cell walls. While the prokaryotic cell walls’ chief component is peptidoglycan, the major organic molecule in the plant (and some protists’) cell wall is cellulose (Figure 4.16), a polysaccharide comprised of glucose units. Have you ever noticed that when you bite into a raw vegetable, like celery, it crunches? That’s because you are tearing the celery cells’ rigid cell walls with your teeth. The cell walls of fungal cells are composed of the polysaccharide chitin, while protists have an array of materials that may be found in the cell wall.
Like the mitochondria, chloroplasts have their own DNA and ribosomes, but chloroplasts have an entirely different function. Chloroplasts are plant cell organelles that carry out photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the series of reactions that use carbon dioxide, water, and light energy to make glucose and oxygen. This is a major difference between plants and animals. Plants (autotrophs) are able to make their own food, like sugars used in cellular respiration to provide ATP energy generated in the plant mitochondria. Animals (heterotrophs) must ingest their food.
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 we call thylakoids (Figure 4.17). Each thylakoid stack is a granum (plural = grana). We call the fluid enclosed by the inner membrane that surrounds the grana the stroma.
The chloroplasts contain a green pigment, chlorophyll, which captures the light energy that drives the reactions of photosynthesis. Like plant cells, photosynthetic protists also have chloroplasts. Some bacteria perform photosynthesis, but their chlorophyll is not relegated to an organelle.
We have mentioned that both mitochondria and chloroplasts contain DNA and ribosomes. Have you wondered why? Strong evidence points to endosymbiosis as the explanation.
Symbiosis is a relationship in which organisms from two separate species depend on each other for their survival. Endosymbiosis (endo- = “within”) is a mutually beneficial relationship in which one organism lives inside the other. Endosymbiotic relationships abound in nature. We have already mentioned that microbes that produce vitamin K live inside the human gut. This relationship is beneficial for us because we are unable to synthesize vitamin K. It is also beneficial for the microbes because they are protected from other organisms and from drying out, and they receive abundant food from the environment of the large intestine.
Scientists have long noticed that bacteria, mitochondria, and chloroplasts are similar in size. We also know that bacteria have DNA and ribosomes that are similar to those found in mitochondria and chloroplasts. Scientists believe that host cells and bacteria formed an endosymbiotic relationship when the host cells ingested both aerobic and autotrophic bacteria (cyanobacteria) but did not destroy them. Through many millions of years of evolution, these ingested bacteria became more specialized in their functions, with the aerobic bacteria becoming mitochondria and the autotrophic bacteria becoming chloroplasts. Free living microorganisms often merge with larger organisms in this way. This theory was first proposed by Dr. Lynn Margulis in 1981, and while it was initially met with considerable criticism, it is now widely accepted.
The Central Vacuole
Previously, we mentioned vacuoles as essential components of plant cells. If you look at Figure 4.8b, you will see that plant cells each have a large central vacuole that occupies most of the cell’s area. The central vacuole plays a key role in regulating the cell’s concentration of water in changing environmental conditions. Have you ever noticed that if you forget to water a plant for a few days, it wilts? That’s 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. As the central vacuole shrinks, it leaves the cell wall unsupported. This loss of support to the plant’s cell walls results in the wilted appearance.
The central vacuole also supports the cell’s expansion. When the central vacuole holds more water, the cell becomes larger without having to invest considerable energy in synthesizing new cytoplasm.