cell, in biology, the unit of structure and function of which all plants and animals are composed. The cell is the smallest unit in the living organism that is capable of integrating the essential life processes. There are many unicellular organisms, e.g., bacteria and protozoans, in which the single cell performs all life functions. In higher organisms, a division of labor has evolved in which groups of cells have differentiated into specialized tissues, which in turn are grouped into organs and organ systems.

Cells can be separated into two major groups—prokaryotes, cells whose DNA is not segregated within a well-defined nucleus surrounded by a membranous nuclear envelope, and eukaryotes, those with a membrane-enveloped nucleus. The bacteria (kingdom Monera) are prokaryotes. They are smaller in size and simpler in internal structure than eukaryotes and are believed to have evolved much earlier (see evolution). All organisms other than bacteria consists of one or more eukaryotic cells.

All cells share a number of common properties; they store information in genes made of DNA (see nucleic acid); they use proteins as their main structural material; they synthesize proteins in the cell's ribosomes using the information encoded in the DNA and mobilized by means of RNA; they use adenosine triphosphate as the means of transferring energy for the cell's internal processes; and they are enclosed by a cell membrane, composed of proteins and a double layer of lipid molecules, that controls the flow of materials into and out of the cell.

Cell Structure

In the nucleus the DNA, along with certain proteins, is arranged in long, thin threads called chromatin fibers that coil into bodies called chromosomes during meiosis. The nucleus also contains one or more nucleoli (sing., nucleolus) that participate in the production on the RNA of ribosomes. The portion of the cell outside the nucleus, called the cytoplasm, contains several additional cell structures (often called organelles). Among the important organelles that may be present are the ribosomes; the endoplasmic reticulum, a highly convoluted system of membranes believed to be continuous with the nuclear envelope and responsible for transporting certain newly made proteins; the mitochondria, which extract energy by breaking down the chemical bonds in molecules of complex nutrients during respiration; the chloroplasts, which are present only in green plants and convert energy from sunlight by the process of photosynthesis; lysosomes, which contain digestive enzymes; peroxisomes, which contain a number of specialized enzymes; the centrosomes, which function during cell division; the Golgi apparatus, which functions in the synthesis, storage, and secretion of various cellular products; filaments and microtubules that form a sort of skeletal system known as a cytoskeleton and also participate in movement of cells and organelles; vacuoles containing food in various stages of digestion (see endocytosis); and inert granules and crystals. In plant cells there is, in addition to the cell membrane, a thickened cell wall, usually composed chiefly of cellulose secreted by the cell.

The Study of Cells

Because almost all cells are microscopic, knowledge of the component cell parts increased proportionately to the development of the microscope and other specialized instruments and of allied experimental techniques. Among those who contributed to early knowledge of cells through their use of the microscope were Antony van Leeuwenhoek, Robert Hooke, and Marcello Malpighi. In the 19th cent. Matthias J. Schleiden and Theodor Schwann developed what is now known as the cell theory. The theory was widely promoted after the pronouncement by Rudolf Virchow in 1855 that "omnis cellulae e cellula" [All cells arise from cells]. The study of cell structure came to be called cytology and that of tissues histology. In the 20th cent. appreciation of the biochemistry of the cell has flourished, along with a better understanding of its structure; cell biology now integrates both chemical and structural information.

See also biochemistry.


See L. Thomas, The Lives of a Cell (1974); D. M. Prescott, Cells (1988); B. Alberts et al., Molecular Biology of the Cell (2d ed. 1989); J. M. Lackie and J. A. Dowe, ed., The Dictionary of Cell Biology (1989).

cell: see battery, electric.
or white blood cell or white corpuscle

Any of several types of blood cells that help defend the body from infection. The different mature forms—granulocytes, including neutrophils (heterophils), basophils, and eosinophils; monocytes, including macrophages; and lymphocytes—have different functions, including ingesting bacteria, protozoans, or infected or dead body cells; producing antibodies; and regulating the action of other leukocytes. They act mostly in the tissues and are in the bloodstream only for transport. Blood normally contains 5,000–10,000 leukocytes per cu mm.

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In living organisms, an undifferentiated cell that can produce other cells that eventually make up specialized tissues and organs. There are two major types of stem cells, embryonic and adult. Embryonic stem cells are located in the inner mass of a blastocyst (an embryo at a very early stage of development), and they eventually give rise to every cell type of the adult organism. Adult stem cells are found in some tissues in the adult body, such as the epidermis of the skin, the lining of the small intestine, and the bone marrow, where they serve in the regeneration of old or worn tissue. In cancer treatment, blood-forming adult stem cells are routinely harvested from bone marrow, stored, and then reinfused into patients to replace blood cells destroyed by chemotherapy or radiation therapy. This potential for replacing damaged tissues has aroused great interest in using embryonic stem cells to treat a number of other conditions, such as Parkinson disease, severe burns, and damage to the spinal cord. Mouse embryonic stem cells are widely used to create genetically modified mice that serve as models for investigating human disease. However, the use of human embryonic stem cells, which requires destroying the blastocysts from which they are obtained, has raised objections by those who feel blastocyst-stage embryos are human beings. The first human stem cell line was created in 1998, using cells harvested from embryos produced through in vitro fertilization. The use of human embryonic stem cells is allowed in some countries and prohibited or restricted in others.

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When sunlight strikes a solar cell, an electron is freed by the photoelectric effect. The two elipsis

Any device that directly converts the energy in light into electrical energy through the process of photovoltaics (see photovoltaic effect). Solar cells do not use chemical reactions to produce electric power, and they have no moving parts. Most solar cells are designed for converting sunlight into electricity. In large arrays, which may contain many thousands of individual cells, they can function as central electric power stations analogous to nuclear, coal-, or oil-fired power plants. Much smaller assemblies of solar cells are used to provide electric power in remote locations including space satellites; because they have no moving parts that could require service or fuels that would require replenishment, solar cells are ideal for providing power in space.

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Blood disorder (see hemoglobinopathy) seen mainly in persons of Sub-Saharan African ancestry and their descendants and in those from the Middle East, the Mediterranean area, and India. About 1 in 400 blacks worldwide has the disease, caused by inheriting two copies of a recessive gene that makes those with one copy (about 1 in 12 blacks worldwide) resistant to malaria. The gene specifies a variant hemoglobin (hemoglobin S or Hb S) that distorts red blood cells (erythrocytes) into a rigid sickle shape. The cells become clogged in capillaries, damaging or destroying various tissues. Symptoms include chronic anemia, shortness of breath, fever, and episodic “crises” (severe pain in the abdomen, bones, or muscles). Hydroxyurea treatment triggers production of fetal hemoglobin (Hb F), which does not sickle, greatly lessening severity of crises and increasing life expectancy, previously about 45 years.

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or hypernephroma

Malignant tumour of the cells that cover and line the kidney. It usually affects persons over age 50 who have vascular disorders of the kidneys. It seldom causes pain, unless it is advanced. It may metastasize to other organs (e.g., lungs, liver, brain, bone) and go unrecognized until these secondary tumours cause symptoms. Blood can appear in the urine early on but is painless and usually disregarded. Even when the cancer is in the early stages, X-ray films can show deformity in kidney structures.

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or red blood cell or red blood corpuscle

Blood cell that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body tissues. Hemoglobin gives the cell—and whole blood—its colour. Red cells are small, round, flexible, and concave on both sides and lack a nucleus. They develop continuously in bone marrow in several stages and are stored in the spleen. The mature form lives 100–120 days. Adult human blood has about 5.2 million red cells per cu mm. Some conditions change their shape (e.g., pernicious anemia, sickle-cell anemia) or number (e.g., anemia, polycythemia).

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Any cellular organism that lacks a distinct nucleus. Organisms classified in the domains Bacteria (including blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria) and Archaea are prokaryotes; all other organisms are eukaryotes and are placed in the domain Eukarya. Prokaryotic cells lack a nuclear membrane and most of the components of eukaryotic cells. The cytoplasm includes ribosomes that carry out protein synthesis and a double-stranded DNA chromosome, usually circular. Many prokaryotes also contain additional circular DNA molecules called plasmids. The flagella are distinct from those of eukaryotes in design and movement.

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or programmed cell death

Mechanism that allows cells to self-destruct when stimulated by the appropriate trigger. It may be initiated when a cell is no longer needed, when a cell becomes a threat to the organism's health, or for other reasons. The aberrant inhibition or initiation of apoptosis contributes to many disease processes, including cancer. Though embryologists had long been familiar with the process of programmed cell death, not until 1972 was the mechanism's broader significance recognized. Apoptosis is distinguished from necrosis, a form of cell death that results from injury.

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A malignant proliferation of abnormal plasma cells that populate the marrow-containing bones of the body. The affected plasma cells produce myeloma protein, a monoclonal antibody that replaces normal antibodies in the blood, thereby increasing susceptibility to infection and renal failure. Symptoms include pain, anemia, weakness, infection, a tendency to hemorrhage, shortness of breath, kidney insufficiency, bone fractures, and neurological symptoms. It is considered a progressive and incurable disease; treatments with thalidomide, bone-marrow transplantation, and high-dose chemotherapy may extend life span, although success rates are variable.

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or photoelectric cell or electric eye

Solid-state device with a photosensitive cathode that emits electrons when illuminated and an anode for collecting the emitted electrons. Illumination excites electrons, which are attracted to the anode, producing current proportional to the intensity of the illumination. In a photovoltaic cell, light is used to produce voltage. In a photoconductive cell, light is used to regulate the flow of current. Photocells are used in control systems, where interrupting a beam of light opens a circuit, actuating a relay that supplies power to a mechanism to bring about a desired operation, such as opening a door or setting off a burglar alarm. Photocells are also used in photometry and spectroscopy.

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or nerve cell

Structure of a neuron. Dendrites, usually branching fibres, receive and conduct impulses to the elipsis

Any of the cells of the nervous system. Sensory neurons relay information from sense organs, motor neurons carry impulses to muscles and glands, and interneurons transmit impulses between sensory and motor neurons. A typical neuron consists of dendrites (fibres that receive stimuli and conduct them inward), a cell body (a nucleated body that receives input from dendrites), and an axon (a fibre that conducts the nerve impulse from the cell body outward to the axon terminals). Both axons and dendrites may be referred to as nerve fibres. Impulses are relayed by neurotransmitter chemicals released by the axon terminals across the synapses (junctions between neurons or between a neuron and an effector cell, such as a muscle cell) or, in some cases, pass directly from one neuron to the next. Large axons are insulated by a myelin sheath formed by fatty cells called Schwann cells. Bundles of fibres from neurons held together by connective tissue form nerves.

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Device that converts chemical energy of a fuel directly into electricity (see electrochemistry). Fuel cells are intrinsically more efficient than most other energy-conversion devices. Electrolytic chemical reactions cause electrons to be released on one electrode and flow through an external circuit to a second electrode. Whereas in batteries the electrodes are the source of the active ingredients, which are altered and depleted during the reaction, in fuel cells the gas or liquid fuel (often hydrogen, methyl alcohol, hydrazine, or a simple hydrocarbon) is supplied continuously to one electrode and oxygen or air to the other from an external source. So, as long as fuel and oxidant are supplied, the fuel cell will not run down or require recharging. Fuel cells can be used in place of virtually any other source of electricity. They are especially being developed for use in electric automobiles, in the hope of achieving enormous reductions in pollution.

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or fatty tissue

Connective tissue consisting mainly of fat cells, specialized to synthesize and contain large globules of fat, within a structural network of fibres. It is found mainly under the skin but also in deposits between the muscles, in the intestines and in their membrane folds, around the heart, and elsewhere. The fat stored in this tissue comes from dietary fats or is produced in the body. It acts as a fuel reserve for times of starvation or great exertion, helps conserve body heat, and forms pads between organs.

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Any organism composed of one or more cells, each of which contains a clearly defined nucleus enclosed by a membrane, along with organelles (small, self-contained, cellular parts that perform specific functions). The organelles include mitochondria, chloroplasts, a Golgi apparatus, an endoplasmic reticulum, and lysosomes. All organisms except bacteria and archaea are eukaryotes; bacteria and archaea are prokaryotes.

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Study of cells. Its earliest phase began with Robert Hooke's microscopic investigations of cork in 1665, during which he introduced the term cell to describe dead cork cells. Mathias Jacob Schleiden (in 1838) and Theodor Schwann (1839) were among the first to state clearly that cells are the fundamental units of both plants and animals. This pronouncement (the cell theory) was confirmed and elaborated by a series of discoveries and interpretations. In 1892 Oscar Hertwig (1849–1922) suggested that processes at the organism's level are reflections of cellular processes, thus establishing cytology as a separate branch of biology. Seealso physiology.

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Principal structures of an animal cell

In biology, the basic unit of which all living things are composed; the smallest structural unit of living matter that is able to function independently. A single cell can be a complete organism in itself, as in bacteria and protozoans. Groups of specialized cells are organized into tissues and organs in multicellular organisms such as higher plants and animals. There are two distinct types of cells: prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells. Though the structures of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells differ (see prokaryote, eukaryote), their molecular compositions and activities are very similar. The chief molecules in cells are nucleic acids, proteins, and polysaccharides. A cell is bounded by a membrane that enables it to exchange certain materials with its surroundings. In plant cells, a rigid cell wall encloses this membrane.

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  • Table cell, the intersection of a row and a column in a table of information.

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