What are you made of?
Cells make up all living things, including your own body. This picture shows a typical group of cells. But not all cells look alike. Cells can differ in shape and sizes. And the different shapes usually means different functions.
Introduction to Cells
A cell is the smallest structural and functional unit of an organism. Some organisms, like bacteria, consist of only one cell. Big organisms, like humans, consist of trillions of cells. Compare a human to a banana. On the outside, they look very different, but if you look close enough you’ll see that their cells are actually very similar.
Most cells are so small that you cannot see them without the help of a microscope. It was not until 1665 that English scientist Robert Hooke invented a basic light microscope and observed cells for the first time. You may use light microscopes in the classroom. You can use a light microscope to see cells (Figure below). But many structures in the cell are too small to see with a light microscope. So, what do you do if you want to see the tiny structures inside of cells?
The outline of onion cells are visible under a light microscope.
In the 1950s, scientists developed more powerful microscopes. A light microscope sends a beam of light through a specimen, or the object you are studying. A more powerful microscope, called an electron microscope, passes a beam of electrons through the specimen. Sending electrons through a cell allows us to see its smallest parts, even the parts inside the cell (Figure below). Without electron microscopes, we would not know what the inside of a cell looked like.
An electron microscope allows scientists to see much more detail than a light microscope, as with this sample of pollen.
In 1858, after using microscopes much better than Hooke’s first microscope, Rudolf Virchow developed the hypothesis that cells only come from other cells. For example, bacteria, which are single-celled organisms, divide in half (after they grow some) to make new bacteria. In the same way, your body makes new cells by dividing the cells you already have. In all cases, cells only come from cells that have existed before. This idea led to the development of one of the most important theories in biology, the cell theory.
Cell theory states that:
- All organisms are composed of cells.
- Cells are alive and the basic living units of organization in all organisms.
- All cells come from other cells.
- cell: The basic unit of structure and function of a living organism; the basic unit of life.
- cell theory: Scientific theory that all living things are made up of cells, all life functions occur within cells, and all cells come from already existing cells.
- electron microscope: Microscope that uses a beam of electrons to magnify an object.
- microscope: An instrument that uses lenses to produce magnified images of small objects.
- Cells were first observed under a light microscope, but today's electron microscopes allow scientists to take a closer look at the inside of cells.
- Cell theory says that:
- All organisms are composed of cells;
- Cells are alive and the basic living units of organization in all organisms; and
- All cells come from other cells.
Use the sliding bar to zoom in on this animation to get an idea of the relative sizes of your cells.
- Cell Size and Scale - The University of Utah at http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/begin/cells/scale/
- What is the average size of a grain of salt?
- How big is a skin cell? How big is a red blood cell? Can you think of any problems that might exist if this relationship was reversed? Explain your thinking fully.
- How big is an E. coli bacterium? How big is a mitochondrion? Remember this relationship for when you later study endosymbiosis.
- Are all cells the same size?
- What type of microscope would be best for studying the structures found inside of cells?
- What are the three basic parts of the cell theory?
- According the cell theory, can you create a cell by combining molecules in a laboratory? Why or why not?