The Cell Theory

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The CELL THEORY, or cell doctrine, states that all organisms are composed of similar units of organization, called cells. The concept was formally articulated in 1839 by Schleiden & Schwann and has remained as the foundation of modern biology. The idea predates other great paradigms of biology including Darwin's theory of evolution (1859), Mendel's laws of inheritance (1865), and the establishment of comparative biochemistry (1940). Ultrastructural research and modern molecular biology have added many tenets to the cell theory, but it remains as the preeminent theory of biology. The Cell Theory is to Biology as Atomic Theory is to Physics.

Formulation of the Cell Theory
In 1838, Theodor Schwann and Matthias Schleiden were enjoying after-dinner coffee and talking about their studies on cells. It has been suggested that when Schwann heard Schleiden describe plant cells with nuclei, he was struck by the similarity of these plant cells to cells he had observed in animal tissues. The two scientists went immediately to Schwann's lab to look at his slides. Schwann published his book on animal and plant cells (Schwann 1839) the next year, a treatise devoid of acknowledgments of anyone else's contribution, including that of Schleiden (1838). He summarized his observations into three conclusions about cells: 1) The cell is the unit of structure, physiology, and organization in living things. 2) The cell retains a dual existence as a distinct entity and a building block in the construction of organisms.

3) Cells form by free-cell formation, similar to the formation of crystals (spontaneous generation). We know today that the first two tenets are correct, but the third is clearly wrong. The correct interpretation of cell formation by division was finally promoted by others and formally enunciated in Rudolph Virchow's powerful dictum, "Omnis cellula e cellula"... "All cells only arise from pre-existing...