<img src="https://d5nxst8fruw4z.cloudfront.net/atrk.gif?account=iA1Pi1a8Dy00ym" style="display:none" height="1" width="1" alt="" />
Skip Navigation

Common Parts of the Cell

How a cell functions is directly related to its structure. A nerve cell differs from a skin cell in how it looks and what is does.

Atoms Practice
Estimated6 minsto complete
Practice Common Parts of the Cell
This indicates how strong in your memory this concept is
Estimated6 minsto complete
Practice Now
Turn In
Common Parts of the Cell (MAP)

What's the same between a bacterial cell and one of your cells?

There are many different types of cells, but they all have certain parts in common. As this image of human blood shows, cells come in different shapes and sizes. The shapes and sizes directly influence the function of the cell. Yet, all cells - cells from the smallest bacteria to those in the largest whale - do some similar functions, so they do have parts in common.

Common Parts of Cells

Cell Diversity

Cells with different functions often have different shapes. The cells pictured in Figure below are just a few examples of the many different shapes that cells may have. Each type of cell in the figure has a shape that helps it do its job. For example, the job of the nerve cell is to carry messages to other cells. The nerve cell has many long extensions that reach out in all directions, allowing it to pass messages to many other cells at once. Do you see the tail-like projections on the algae cells? Algae live in water, and their tails help them swim. Pollen grains have spikes that help them stick to insects such as bees. How do you think the spikes help the pollen grains do their job? (Hint: Insects pollinate flowers.)

As these pictures show, cells come in many different shapes. How are the shapes of these cells related to their functions?

Four Common Parts of a Cell

Although cells are diverse, all cells have certain parts in common. The parts include a plasma membrane, cytoplasm, ribosomes, and DNA.

  1. The plasma membrane (also called the cell membrane) is a thin coat of lipids that surrounds a cell. It forms the physical boundary between the cell and its environment, so you can think of it as the “skin” of the cell.  The purpose of the cell membrane is to separate the cell's internal parts from extracellular material and the external environment.
  2. Cytoplasm refers to all of the cellular material inside the plasma membrane, other than the nucleus. Cytoplasm is made up of a watery substance called cytosol, and contains other cell structures such as ribosomes.
  3. Organelles are structures in the cytoplasm where cellular activities take place.
  4. Nucleus is usually the largest organelle in the cell. It contains the genetic instructions and carries out the activities of the cell.

These parts are common to all cells, from organisms as different as bacteria and human beings. How did all known organisms come to have such similar cells? The similarities show that all life on Earth has a common evolutionary history.

A nice introduction to the cell is available at http://www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy#p/c/7A9646BC5110CF64/33/Hmwvj9X4GNY (21:03).

  • Where does the DNA live?

    The answer depends on if the cell is prokaryotic or eukaryotic. The main difference between the two types of cells is the presence of a nucleus. And in eukaryotic cells, DNA lives in the nucleus.

    The Nucleus

    The nucleus is a membrane-enclosed organelle found in most eukaryotic cells. The nucleus is the largest organelle in the cell and contains most of the cell's genetic information (mitochondria also contain DNA, called mitochondrial DNA, but it makes up just a small percentage of the cell’s overall DNA content). The genetic information, which contains the information for the structure and function of the organism, is found encoded in DNA in the form of genes. A gene is a short segment of DNA that contains information to encode an RNA molecule or a protein strand. DNA in the nucleus is organized in long linear strands that are attached to different proteins. These proteins help the DNA coil up for better storage in the nucleus. Think how a string gets tightly coiled up if you twist one end while holding the other end. These long strands of coiled-up DNA and proteins are called chromosomes. Each chromosome contains many genes. The function of the nucleus is to maintain the integrity of these genes and to control the activities of the cell by regulating gene expression. Gene expression is the process by which the information in a gene is "decoded" by various cell molecules to produce a functional gene product, such as a protein molecule or an RNA molecule.

    The degree of DNA coiling determines whether the chromosome strands are short and thick or long and thin. Between cell divisions, the DNA in chromosomes is more loosely coiled and forms long, thin strands called chromatin. Before the cell divides, the chromatin coil up more tightly and form chromosomes. Only chromosomes stain clearly enough to be seen under a microscope. The word chromosome comes from the Greek word chroma (color), and soma (body), due to its ability to be stained strongly by dyes.

    The Nuclear Envelope

    The nuclear envelope is a double membrane of the nucleus that encloses the genetic material. It separates the contents of the nucleus from the cytoplasm. The nuclear envelope is made of two lipid bilayers, an inner membrane and an outer membrane. The outer membrane is continuous with the rough endoplasmic reticulum. Many tiny holes called nuclear pores are found in the nuclear envelope. These nuclear pores help to regulate the exchange of materials (such as RNA and proteins) between the nucleus and the cytoplasm.

    The Nucleolus

    The nucleus of many cells also contains a non-membrane bound organelle called a nucleolus, shown in Figure below. The nucleolus is mainly involved in the assembly of ribosomes. Ribosomes are organelles made of protein and ribosomal RNA (rRNA), and they build cellular proteins in the cytoplasm. The function of the rRNA is to provide a way of decoding the genetic messages within another type of RNA (called mRNA), into amino acids. After being made in the nucleolus, ribosomes are exported to the cytoplasm, where they direct protein synthesis.

    The eukaryotic cell nucleus. Visible in this diagram are the ribosome-studded double membranes of the nuclear envelope, the DNA (as chromatin), and the nucleolus. Within the cell nucleus is a viscous liquid called nucleoplasm, similar to the cytoplasm found outside the nucleus. The chromatin (which is normally invisible), is visible in this figure only to show that it is spread throughout the nucleus.


    Sperm cells and muscle cells need lots of energy. What do they have in common?

    They have lots of mitochondria. Mitochondria are called the power plants of the cell, as these organelles are where most of the cell's energy is produced. Cells that need lots of energy have lots of mitochondria.


    In addition to the nucleus, animal cells have many other organelles, including ribosomes and mitochondria. Organells are permanent small organs found within the cytosol. Each organelle has a unique morphology making them highly specialized for specific cellular activities. Ribosomes are an organelle present in all cells.


    Ribosomes are small organelles and are the site of protein synthesis (or assembly). They are made of ribosomal protein and ribosomal RNA. Each ribosome has two parts, a large and a small subunit, as shown in Figure below. The subunits are attached to one another. Ribosomes can be found alone or in groups within the cytoplasm. Some ribosomes are attached to the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) (as shown in Figure below), and others are attached to the nuclear envelope.


    The two subunits that make up a ribosome, small organelles that are intercellular protein factories.

    Ribozymes are RNA molecules that catalyze chemical reactions, such as translation. Translation is the process of ordering the amino acids in the assembly of a protein, and translation will be discussed more in another concept. Briefly, the ribosomes interact with other RNA molecules to make chains of amino acids called polypeptide chains, due to the peptide bond that forms between individual amino acids. Polypeptide chains are built from the genetic instructions held within a messenger RNA (mRNA) molecule. Polypeptide chains that are made on the rough ER (discussed below) are inserted directly into the ER and then are transported to their various cellular destinations. Ribosomes on the rough ER usually produce proteins that are destined for the cell membrane.

    Ribosomes are not surrounded by a membrane. The other organelles found in animal cells are surrounded by a membrane.


    A mitochondrion (mitochondria, plural), is a membrane-enclosed organelle that is found in most eukaryotic cells. Mitochondria are called the "power plants" of the cell because they use energy from organic compounds to make ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is the cell's energy source that is used for such things such as movement and cell division. Some ATP is made in the cytosol of the cell, but most of it is made inside mitochondria. The number of mitochondria in a cell depends on the cell’s energy needs. For example, active human muscle cells may have thousands of mitochondria, while less active red blood cells do not have any.


    (a): Electron micrograph of a single mitochondrion, within which you can see many cristae. Mitochondria range from 1 to 10 μm in size. (b): This model of a mitochondrion shows the organized arrangement of the inner and outer membranes, the protein matrix, and the folded inner mitochondrial membranes.

    As Figure above (a) and (b) show, a mitochondrion has two phospholipid membranes. The smooth outer membrane separates the mitochondrion from the cytosol. The inner membrane has many folds, called cristae. The fluid-filled inside of the mitochondrion, called matrix, is where most of the cell’s ATP is made.

    Although most of a cell's DNA is contained in the cell nucleus, mitochondria have their own DNA. Mitochondria are able to reproduce asexually, and scientists think that they are descended from prokaryotes. According to the endosymbiotic theory, mitochondria were once free-living prokaryotes that infected ancient eukaryotic cells. The invading prokaryotes were protected inside the eukaryotic host cell, and in turn the prokaryote supplied extra ATP to its host.


    Does a cell have its own ER?

    Yes, but in this case, the ER is not just for emergencies. True, there might be times when the cell responds to emergency conditions and the functions of the ER may be needed, but usually the cell's ER is involved in normal functions. Proteins are also made on the outside of the ER, and this starts a whole process of protein transport, both around the inside of the cell and to the cell membrane and out.

    Endoplasmic Reticulum

    The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) (plural, reticuli) is a network of phospholipid membranes that form hollow tubes, flattened sheets, and round sacs. These flattened, hollow folds and sacs are called cisternae. The ER has two major functions:

    • Transport: Molecules, such as proteins, can move from place to place inside the ER, much like on an intracellular highway.
    • Synthesis: Ribosomes that are attached to ER, similar to unattached ribosomes, make proteins. Lipids are also produced in the ER.

    There are two types of endoplasmic reticulum, rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) and smooth endoplasmic reticulum (SER).

    • Rough endoplasmic reticulum is studded with ribosomes, which gives it a "rough" appearance. These ribosomes make proteins that are then transported from the ER in small sacs called transport vesicles. The transport vesicles pinch off the ends of the ER. The rough endoplasmic reticulum works with the Golgi apparatus to move new proteins to their proper destinations in the cell. The membrane of the RER is continuous with the outer layer of the nuclear envelope.
    • Smooth endoplasmic reticulum does not have any ribosomes attached to it, and so it has a smooth appearance. SER has many different functions, some of which include lipid synthesis, calcium ion storage, and drug detoxification. Smooth endoplasmic reticulum is found in both animal and plant cells and it serves different functions in each. The SER is made up of tubules and vesicles that branch out to form a network. In some cells there are dilated areas like the sacs of RER. Smooth endoplasmic reticulum and RER form an interconnected network.

    Image of nucleus, endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus, and how they work together. The process of secretion from endoplasmic reticuli (orange) to Golgi apparatus (pink) is shown. [5]

    Golgi Apparatus

    The Golgi apparatus is a large organelle that is usually made up of five to eight cup-shaped, membrane-covered discs called cisternae, as shown in Figure above. The cisternae look a bit like a stack of deflated balloons. The Golgi apparatus modifies, sorts, and packages different substances for secretion out of the cell, or for use within the cell. The Golgi apparatus is found close to the nucleus of the cell, where it modifies proteins that have been delivered in transport vesicles from the RER. It is also involved in the transport of lipids around the cell. Pieces of the Golgi membrane pinch off to form vesicles that transport molecules around the cell. The Golgi apparatus can be thought of as similar to a post office; it packages and labels "items" and then sends them to different parts of the cell. Both plant and animal cells have a Golgi apparatus. Plant cells can have up to several hundred Golgi stacks scattered throughout the cytoplasm. In plants, the Golgi apparatus contains enzymes that synthesize some of the cell wall polysaccharides.


    A vesicle is a small, spherical compartment that is separated from the cytosol by at least one lipid bilayer. Many vesicles are made in the Golgi apparatus and the endoplasmic reticulum, or are made from parts of the cell membrane. Vesicles from the Golgi apparatus can be seen in Figure above. Because it is separated from the cytosol, the space inside the vesicle can be made to be chemically different from the cytosol. Vesicles are basic tools of the cell for organizing metabolism, transport, and storage of molecules. Vesicles are also used as chemical reaction chambers. They can be classified by their contents and function.

    • Transport vesicles are able to move molecules between locations inside the cell. For example, transport vesicles move proteins from the rough endoplasmic reticulum to the Golgi apparatus.
    • Lysosomes are vesicles that are formed by the Golgi apparatus. They contain powerful enzymes that could break down (digest) the cell. Lysosomes break down harmful cell products, waste materials, and cellular debris and then force them out of the cell. They also digest invading organisms such as bacteria. Lysosomes also break down cells that are ready to die, a process called autolysis.
    • Peroxisomes are vesicles that use oxygen to break down toxic substances in the cell. Unlike lysosomes, which are formed by the Golgi apparatus, peroxisomes self-replicate by growing bigger and then dividing. They are common in liver and kidney cells that break down harmful substances. Peroxisomes are named for the hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) that is produced when they break down organic compounds. Hydrogen peroxide is toxic, and in turn is broken down into water (H2O) and oxygen (O2) molecules.


    Vacuoles are membrane-bound organelles that can have secretory, excretory, and storage functions. Many organisms will use vacuoles as storage areas and some plant cells have very large vacuoles. Vesicles are much smaller than vacuoles and function in transporting materials both within and to the outside of the cell.


    Centrioles are rod-like structures made of short microtubules. Nine groups of three microtubules make up each centriole. Two perpendicular centrioles make up the centrosome. Centrioles are very important in cellular division, where they arrange the mitotic spindles that pull the chromosome apart during mitosis.


All cells have a plasma membrane. This membrane surrounds the cell. So what is its role?

Can molecules enter and leave the cell? Yes. Can anything or everything enter or leave? No. So, what determines what can go in or out? Is it the nucleus? The DNA? Or the plasma membrane?

The Plasma Membrane

The plasma membrane (also known as the cell membrane) forms a barrier between the cytoplasm inside the cell and the environment outside the cell. It protects and supports the cell and also controls everything that enters and leaves the cell. It allows only certain substances to pass through, while keeping others in or out. The ability to allow only certain molecules in or out of the cell is referred to as selective permeability or semipermeability. To understand how the plasma membrane controls what crosses into or out of the cell, you need to know its composition.

The plasma membrane is discussed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-aSfoB8Cmic (6:16).

A Phospholipid Bilayer

The plasma membrane is composed mainly of phospholipids, which consist of fatty acids and alcohol. The phospholipids in the plasma membrane are arranged in two layers, called a phospholipid bilayer. As shown in Figure below, each phospholipid molecule has a head and two tails. The head “loves” water (hydrophilic) and the tails “hate” water (hydrophobic). The water-hating tails are on the interior of the membrane, whereas the water-loving heads point outwards, toward either the cytoplasm or the fluid that surrounds the cell. Molecules that are hydrophobic can easily pass through the plasma membrane, if they are small enough, because they are water-hating like the interior of the membrane. Molecules that are hydrophilic, on the other hand, cannot pass through the plasma membrane—at least not without help—because they are water-loving like the exterior of the membrane.

Phospholipid Bilayer. The phospholipid bilayer consists of two layers of phospholipids (left), with a hydrophobic, or water-hating, interior and a hydrophilic, or water-loving, exterior. A single phospholipid molecule is depicted on the right. [2]

Can anything or everything move in or out of the cell?

No. It is the semipermeable plasma membrane that determines what can enter and leave the cell. So, if not everything can cross the membrane, how do certain things get across?

Membrane Proteins

The plasma membrane contains molecules other than phospholipids, primarily other lipids and proteins. The green molecules in Figure below, for example, are the lipid cholesterol. Molecules of cholesterol help the plasma membrane keep its shape. Many of the proteins in the plasma membrane assist other substances in crossing the membrane.

The plasma membranes also contain certain types of proteins. A membrane protein is a protein molecule that is attached to, or associated with, the membrane of a cell or an organelle. Membrane proteins can be put into two groups based on how the protein is associated with the membrane.

Integral membrane proteins are permanently embedded within the plasma membrane. They have a range of important functions. Such functions include channeling or transporting molecules across the membrane. Other integral proteins act as cell receptors. Integral membrane proteins can be classified according to their relationship with the bilayer:

  • Transmembrane proteins span the entire plasma membrane. Transmembrane proteins are found in all types of biological membranes.
  • Integral monotopic proteins are permanently attached to the membrane from only one side.

Some integral membrane proteins are responsible for cell adhesion (sticking of a cell to another cell or surface). On the outside of cell membranes and attached to some of the proteins are carbohydrate chains that act as labels that identify the cell type. Shown in Figure below are two different types of membrane proteins and associated molecules.

Peripheral membrane proteins are proteins that are only temporarily associated with the membrane. They can be easily removed, which allows them to be involved in cell signaling. Peripheral proteins can also be attached to integral membrane proteins, or they can stick into a small portion of the lipid bilayer by themselves. Peripheral membrane proteins are often associated with ion channels and transmembrane receptors. Most peripheral membrane proteins are hydrophilic.

Types of Membrane Proteins
Protein Type Function
Cell Surface Marker Extend from the surface of hte cell membrane surface to help cells identify each other
Receptor Proteins Receptors for hormones
Transport Proteins (Ion channels) Regulate entry and exit of molecules into and out of the cell
Intergral Membrane Proteins Permanently attached to the membrane, allow ions, enzymes, and non polar molecules to enter and leave the cell

As seen in the figure below carbohydrates are imbedded in the plasma membrane. These carbohydrates are chains that extend from the surface of the cell membranes and help in cell identification. It is these carbohydrates that let the body’s immune system know that this cell is part of the body.

Some of the membrane proteins make up a major transport system that moves molecules and ions through the polar phospholipid bilayer.

The Fluid Mosaic Model

In 1972 S.J. Singer and G.L. Nicolson proposed the now widely accepted Fluid Mosaic Model of the structure of cell membranes. The model proposes that integral membrane proteins are embedded in the phospholipid bilayer, as seen in Figure above. Some of these proteins extend all the way through the bilayer, and some only partially across it. These membrane proteins act as transport proteins and receptors proteins.

Their model also proposed that the membrane behaves like a fluid, rather than a solid. The proteins and lipids of the membrane move around the membrane, much like buoys in water. Such movement causes a constant change in the "mosaic pattern" of the plasma membrane.

A further description of the Fluid Mosaic Model can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULR79TiUj80 (1:27).

Extensions of the Plasma Membrane

The plasma membrane may have extensions, such as whip-like flagella or brush-like cilia. In single-celled organisms, like those shown in Figure below, the membrane extensions may help the organisms move. In multicellular organisms, the extensions have other functions. For example, the cilia on human lung cells sweep foreign particles and mucus toward the mouth and nose.

Flagella and Cilia. Cilia and flagella are extensions of the plasma membrane of many cells.


  • Cells come in many different shapes. Cells with different functions often have different shapes.
  • Although cells comes in diverse shapes, all cells have certain parts in common. These parts include the plasma membrane, cytoplasm, ribosomes, and DNA
  • The nucleus is a membrane-enclosed organelle, found in most eukaryotic cells, which stores the genetic material (DNA).
  • The nucleus is surrounded by a double lipid bilayer, the nuclear envelope, which is embedded with nuclear pores.
  • The nucleolus is inside the nucleus, and is where ribosomes are made
  • Ribosomes are small organelles and are the site of protein synthesis. Ribosomes are found in all cells.
  • Mitochondria are where energy from organic compounds is used to make ATP.
  • The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is involved in the synthesis of lipids and synthesis and transport of proteins.
  • The Golgi apparatus modifies, sorts, and packages different substances for secretion out of the cell, or for use within the cell.
  • Vesicles are also used as chemical reaction chambers. Transport vesicles, lysosomes, and peroxisomes are types of vesicles.
  • Vacuoles have secretory, excretory, and storage functions.
  • Centrioles are made of short microtubules and are very important in cell division.

Notes/Highlights Having trouble? Report an issue.

Color Highlighted Text Notes
Please to create your own Highlights / Notes
Show More

Image Attributions

Explore More

Sign in to explore more, including practice questions and solutions for Common Parts of the Cell.
Please wait...
Please wait...