Cell, Eukaryotic

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Cell, Eukaryotic

All living organisms are composed of cells. A eukaryotic cell is a cell with a nucleus, which contains the cell's chromosomes. Plants, animals, protists, and fungi have eukaryotic cells, unlike the Eubacteria and Archaea , whose cells do not have nuclei and are therefore termed prokaryotic. In addition to having a nucleus, eukaryotic cells differ from prokaryotic cells in being larger and much more structurally and functionally complex. Eukaryotic cells contain subcompartments called organelles, which carry out specialized reactions within their boundaries. A eukaryotic cell may be an individual organism, such as the amoeba, or a highly specialized part of a multicellular organism, such as a neuron .

Physical Characteristics

A typical eukaryotic cell is about 25 micrometers in diameter, but this average hides a large range of sizes. The smallest cell is a type of green algae, Ostreococcus tauri, with a diameter of only 0.8 micrometers, about the size of a typical bacterium. The human sperm is about 4 micrometers wide, but 40 micrometers long, while the egg is about 100 micrometers in diameter. Single neurons can be a meter or more in length. While schematic diagrams often picture cells as simple cubes or spheres, most cells have highly individual shapes. Human red blood cells are flattened disks indented on either side; muscle cells are highly elongated; neurons are long and thin with many branches on each end; and white blood cells constantly change their shapes as they crawl through the body.

Cells are also often depicted as a bag of fluid with a smattering of structures within, but this is far from the truth. Instead, the interior of the cell is a dense network of structural proteins, collectively termed the cytoskeleton, within which is embedded a large collection of organelles. The material within the cell except for the nucleus is called the cytoplasm. The nonorganelle portion of the cytoplasm is called the cytosol. The consistency of the cytoplasm is much like egg white, and not at all like freely flowing water.


Eukaryotic cells include large amounts of membrane, which enclose the cell itself and surround each of the organelles. The membrane surrounding the cell is termed the plasma membrane. Membranes are bilayered structures, made of two layers of phospholipid molecules, built from phosphoric acids and fatty acids. One end of the phospholipid molecules (the exterior head) is hydrophilic , and it is oriented to the outer side of the membrane; the other end (the interior tails) are hydrophobic . Despite this, water molecules can pass freely through the bilayer, as can oxygen and carbon dioxide. Ions such as sodium or chloride cannot pass through, however, and neither can larger molecules such as sugars or amino acids . Instead, these materials must pass through the membrane via specialized proteins. This selective permeability allows the membrane to control the flow of materials in and out of the cell and its organelles.

Proteins and Membrane Transport

Proteins are long chains of amino acids. They have unique shapes and chemical properties that dictate their diverse functions. Proteins govern the range of materials that enter and leave the cell, relay signals from the environment to the interior, and participate in many metabolic reactions, harvesting or harnessing energy to transform raw materials into the molecules needed by the cell for growth, repair, or other functions. Cytoskeleton proteins give the cell its structure. Approximately half the weight of a membrane is due to the proteins embedded in it. Proteins give each organelle, and the cell as a whole, its unique character.

As noted, ions cannot pass freely through the cell's phospholipid membrane. Instead, most ions flow through special channels built from multiple protein subunits that together form a pore from one side of the membrane to the other. Some channels are gated, fitted with proteins that act as hinged doors, blocking the opening until stimulated to swing out of the way. Neurons, for instance, have gated sodium channels that open to allow an electrical impulse to pass and then close to recharge the cell for another firing. Molecules can also cross the membrane attached to protein pumps that are powered by ATP . Transport of scarce molecules such as sugars can also be powered indirectly, by coupling their movement to the flow of another substance. In addition to traversing the membrane directly, water passes through special channels formed by a protein called aquaporin.

Signal Transduction

Proteins, including membrane proteins, also play critical roles in signal transduction, or relay. Signals can include hormones , ions, environmental changes such as odors or light, or mechanical disturbances such as stretching. A hormone is a small molecule released by one cell in the body to influence the behavior of another. A hormone exerts its influence by binding to a protein receptor in the target cell either on the membrane or within the cytoplasm. Cells that do not make receptors for a particular hormone are not susceptible to its effects. Adrenaline and testosterone are examples of hormones that illustrate two major modes of hormone action.

Adrenaline binds to a membrane-spanning receptor that projects both to the outside and the inside of the cell. The binding of adrenaline to the exterior portion changes the shape of the receptor, which in turn sets in motion other changes within the cell. The result is the production of a molecule called cyclic AMP (adenosine monophosphate), another form of the adenosine nucleotide. This "second messenger" binds to a variety of enzymes within the cell, activating them and leading to production of a variety of products. The exact set of enzymes turned on by cyclic AMP and the exact set of consequences depend on the particular cell. Kidney cells, for instance, increase their permeability to water, while liver cells release sugar into the bloodstream. The unique set of proteins within each cell is determined by the genes it has expressed, which in turn is determined by its own history and the hormones and other influences to which it has been exposed.

Testosterone's effects come on more slowly than adrenaline's, but last much longer. Testosterone passes through the plasma membrane and binds to a receptor in the cytosol. Once this occurs, the receptor-hormone complex is transported to the nucleus. Here, it binds to DNA, altering the rate of gene expression for a wide variety of genes. Thus, testosterone acts as a transcription factor . The prolonged action of testosterone is in part because it stimulates the production of new, long-lasting proteins that alter the cell's function for much longer than the very rapid and short-lived effects of adrenaline.

Cells continually respond to signals, and they influence other cells through the signals they release. Signaling pathways within the cell control the rate of cell division, the development and differentiation of the cell, the secretion of proteins and other molecules, and the response to injury, among many other reactions.


Metabolism refers to the entire set of reactions within the cell. Most reactions can be classified as either anabolic or catabolic. Anabolic reactions use stored energy to build more complex molecules from simpler ones. Protein synthesis is an example. Catabolic reactions break down complex molecules to simpler ones, releasing energy in the process that may be harvested and stored by the cell. Glucose breakdown is an example.

The energy transfer in each type of reaction almost always involves the interconversion of ATP and ADP (adenosine diphosphate). Energy is released when ATP loses a phosphate to become ADP, while energy is required to make ATP from ADP and phosphate. ATP can also be converted to AMP by the loss of two phosphates. This reaction, which releases even more energy, is used in replication of DNA and synthesis of RNA (transcription).


Glucose breakdown begins in the cytosol, but the majority of the process occurs in the mitochondrion, the energy-harvesting organelle of the cell. In addition to participating in the breakdown of glucose (and making ATP in the process), the mitochondrion is also involved in breaking down fats and amino acids. All these fuels are processed in two major steps, termed the Krebs cycle and the electron transport chain. In the Krebs cycle, the carbon skeletons are broken apart to make CO2, while the hydrogen atoms are removed on special nucleotide carriers. In the electron transport chain, the hydrogens are stripped of their energy in a series of steps to make ATP, and in the end are reacted with oxygen to form water. The mitochondrion consumes virtually all the oxygen used by the cell. The mitochondrion also participates in many anabolic reactions, using the intermediates of the Krebs cycle as a source of carbon skeletons for creating and modifying nucleotides, amino acids, and other building blocks of the cell.

The mitochondrion is the descendant of a once free-living bacterium that took up residence inside an ancient cell, probably to take advantage of high-energy molecules the host could not metabolize. Mitochondria retain their own DNA on their own bacteria-like chromosome, although over time most of the original mitochondrion's genes were transferred to the host and now reside in the nucleus.


The cells of plants and some protists possess chloroplasts, whose green chlorophyll gives plant leaves their characteristic color. Embedded in an internal membrane, chlorophyll absorbs sunlight and funnels it to a complex set of proteins nearby. Light energy is used to split water into oxygen (released as a waste product) and hydrogen, which is attached to nucleotide carriers. The hydrogen is then reacted with CO2 from the air to form sugars, the essential high-energy product that powers all of life. Like the mitochondrion, the chloroplast is a relic of a former free-living bacterium, and has its own DNA on its own chromosome.


The nucleus contains the chromosomes. Chromosomes contain the genes, which are DNA sequences used to create RNA. The nucleus is bounded by a double membrane, called the nuclear envelope. Numerous large pores provide channels through which materials enter and exit. One of the chief exports of the nucleus is messenger RNA, which is used in the cytoplasm for protein construction.

Translation occurs in the cytoplasm at ribosomes, large complexes made of protein and RNA. Ribosomes are assembled in the nucleus, in the region called the nucleolus. RNA is synthesized by the enzyme RNA polymerase, which unwinds DNA and transcribes short portions, known as genes. These RNA molecules are processed further before being exported as messenger RNA. Other RNAs made in the nucleus include the RNA used in ribosomes (ribosomal RNA), RNAs that carry amino acids to the ribosome (transfer RNA), and a host of small RNAs that mostly function in the nucleus to modify other RNAs.

Protein Synthesis, Modification, and Export

Messenger RNA exported from the nucleus binds to a ribosome in the cytosol , which then proceeds to translate the genetic message into a protein. Some proteins, with their ribosomes, remain free in the cytosol throughout translation, but others do not. Those that do not remain free carry a special sequence of amino acids at their leading end, called a signal peptide. This sequence directs the growing protein with its ribosome to the surface of the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), the most extensive organelle in the cell. Here, the ribosome attaches and extrudes the growing protein into the interior, or lumen, of the ER. Attachment of numerous ribosomes gives portions of the ER a rough appearance under the electron microscope. The ER also synthesizes most of the lipids used in the cell's many membranes. Lipid-synthesizing ER does not have ribosomes attached, and so appears smooth.

Many of the proteins entering the ER lumen are destined for other compartments in the cell, and contain organelle-specific targeting sequences that direct them to their final destination. Most of these proteins are first modified by the addition of branched sugar groups to make "glycoproteins." Most proteins in the plasma membrane, for instance, are glycoproteins. The full range of functions of these sugar groups is unknown, but they may help the protein to fold correctly after synthesis, act in cell-cell recognition and adhesion, and promote appropriate interactions with other proteins.

Proteins are further modified and sorted in the Golgi apparatus, a set of flattened membrane disks that is continuous with the ER. Here proteins and lipids are packaged in vesicles that bud off and travel along the cytoskeleton to their final destination. Fusion of the vesicle membrane with the target membrane delivers the contents to the target organelle. Proteins and other materials that the cell exports travel to the plasma membrane via vesicles. Fusion of the vesicle with the plasma membrane delivers the contents to the exterior of the cell.

Cell Cycle

Cells must reproduce in order for the organism to grow or repair damage. For single-celled organisms, cellular reproduction creates a new organism. Each new cell must get a complete set of chromosomes, which therefore must be duplicated and evenly divided between the two daughter cells.

The orderly series of events involving cell growth and division is termed the cell cycle. Immediately following a division, the cell grows by taking up and metabolizing nutrients, and by synthesizing the many proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, sugars, and other molecules it needs. DNA replication occurs next, making duplicate chromosomes, followed by a short period in which the cell synthesizes the numerous proteins specific for cell division itself.

Cell division includes two linked processes: mitosis, or chromosome division, and cytokinesis , or cytoplasm division. Triggered by specific protein changes, the chromosomes begin to coil up tightly and become visible under the microscope. Cytoskeleton fibers attach to them, and position the chromosomes in pairs along the cell's imaginary equator. At the same time, the nuclear envelope breaks down into numerous small vesicles. The cytoskeleton fibers (termed the spindle) pull the chromosome duplicates apart, segregating one member of each pair to opposite sides of the cell. Other cytoskeleton proteins pinch the membrane along the equator (in animal cells) or build a wall across it (in plant cells) to separate the two cell halves, ultimately forming two daughter cells. Finally, the nuclear envelope re-forms and the chromosomes uncoil, starting a new round of the cell cycle.

see also Archaea; Cell Cycle; Eubacteria; Inheritance, Extranuclear; Meiosis; Mitochondrial Genome; Mitosis; Nucleus; Proteins; Ribosome; RNA Processing; Signal Transduction; Transcription Factors; Translation.

Richard Robinson


Alberts, Bruce, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell, 3rd ed. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.