The Cell

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The cell is the fundamental structural unit of all living organisms. Some cells are complete organisms, such as the unicellular bacteria and protozoa; others, such as nerve, liver, and muscle cells, are specialized components of multi-cellular organisms. Cells range in size from the smallest bacteria-like mycoplasmas, which are 0.1 micrometer in diameter, to the egg yolks of ostriches, which are about 8 cm (about 3 in) in diameter. Although they may differ widely in appearance and function, all cells have a surrounding membrane and an internal, water-rich substance called the cytoplasm, the composition of which differs significantly from the external environment of the cell. Within the cell is genetic material, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), containing coded instructions for the behavior and reproduction of the cell and also the chemical machinery for the translation of these instructions into the manufacture of proteins. Viruses are not considered cells because they lack this translation machinery; they must parasitize cells in order to translate their own genetic code and reproduce themselves. Cells are of two distinctly different types, prokaryotes and eukaryotes; thus, the living world is divided into two broad categories. The DNA of prokaryotes is a single molecule in direct contact with the cell cytoplasm, whereas the DNA of eukaryotes is much greater in amount and diversity and is contained within a nucleus separated from the cell cytoplasm by a membranous nuclear envelope. Many eukaryotic cells are further divided into compartments by internal membranes in addition to the nuclear envelope, whereas prokaryotic cells never contain completely internal membranes. The prokaryotes include the mycoplasmas, bacteria, and blue-green algae. The eukaryotes comprise all plant and animal cells. In general, plant cells differ from animal cells in that they have a rigid cell wall exterior to the plasma membrane; a large vacuole, or fluid-filled pouch; and chloroplasts that convert light energy to chemical energy for the synthesis of glucose. Structure and Function

Cells are composed primarily of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen, the elements that make up the majority of organic compounds. The most important organic compounds in a cell are proteins, nucleic acids, lipids, and polysaccharides (carbohydrates). The "solid" structures of the cell are complex combinations of these large molecules. Water makes up 60 to 65 percent of the cell, because water is a favorable environment for biochemical reactions. All cells are dynamic at some stage of their life cycle, in the sense that they use energy to perform a variety of cell functions: movement, growth, maintenance and repair of cell structure, reproduction of the cell, and manufacture of specialized cell products such as enzymes and hormones. These functions are also the result of interactions of organic molecules. Plasma Membrane

The plasma membrane, a continuous double layer of phospholipid molecules 75 to 100 angstroms thick, constitutes the boundary between the cell and its external environment. In addition to lipids, the plasma membrane has protein components (polypeptides) that are associated with either the outer or inner surfaces of its layers or are buried within them. The structure as a whole is selectively permeable, or semipermeable; that is, it permits the exchange of water and selected atoms and molecules between the cell exterior and interior. This is vital to the cell because while the plasma membrane helps maintain high local concentrations of organic molecules within the cell, it also allows interaction between the cell and its external environment. The plasma membrane mediates such interactions in various ways. The exchange of mineral ions and small nutrient molecules is controlled by plasma membrane proteins that act as pumps, carriers, and channels. The plasma membrane also participates in the exchange of larger molecules through phagocytosis, the...
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