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Chapter-5, The Fundamental Unit of Life

Cell is the basic structural and functional unit of life. Cells are the smallest structures capable of basic life
processes, such as taking in nutrients, expelling waste, and reproducing. A cell performs functions like
respiration, obtaining nutrition, clearing of waste material, forming new proteins etc. All living things are
composed of cells.
The term ‘CELL’ was coined by Robert Hooke in 1665.
He examined a thin slice of cork ( a substance from the bark of a tree) under the microscope. Since cork is made
up of dead cells, so what Robert Hooke saw was empty compartments lined by cell wall. He described it as a
structure similar to honey-comb consisting of many inner compartments. He called these empty compartments
as cells. ( in latin language: cellula means a ‘little room’.
Living Organisms are made up of cells.
Humans have an estimated 100 trillion or 1014 cells; a typical cell size is 10 µm; a typical cell mass is
1 nanogram. The largest known cell is an unfertilized ostrich egg cell.
Longest cells are nerve cells that may be several meters long.

Observing cells in onion bulb: An onion bulb is a modified part of onion plant. It has dry and fleshy
scale leaves, a reduced disc like stem and adventitious roots. On
observing a small piece of skin (peel also called epidermis) from the
concave side of fleshy scale leaf by preparing a slide and observing under
the microscope, a number of elongated thin walled cells are seen. Each
cell has a distinct nucleus and may also have a vacuole. These cells are
the building blocks of onion bulb.

Organisms are divided into two categories based on the number of cells present in their body.
When a single cell constitutes the whole organism, such organisms are known as unicellular organisms.
( Uni=Single) Eg. Amoeba, Chlamydomonas, Paramoecium and bacteria.
When many cells group together to form one organism, such an organism is known as a multicellular organism.
(Multi=Many) Eg. animals , plants and most fungi.

Where do cells come from: All cells come from pre-existing cells by the process of cell division.
Relation between structure and function of a cell:
Shape and size of cells are related to the specific function performed by them. For eg. A nerve cell has a long
axon because it helps in transmission of nerve impulses.

Division of Labour: Division of labour is seen in organisms at different levels.

In man, heart pumps blood, stomach digests food and so on. Similarly, division of labour is seen in cells also.
Similarly, in cells, there are structures called cell organelles that perform specific functions so that the cell can
exist as a living unit. For eg, lysosomes help in digestion of food within the cell and mitochondria helps in
production of energy.
Structural organization of a cell
The three main structural and functional regions
inside a cell are:
1. Plasma membrane (Cell Membrane)
2. Nucleus and
3. Cytoplasm. 1
Functional Regions of a Cell

Outer most covering of cells. The plasma membrane is selectively permeable i.e. it permits the entry and exit of
some substances in and out of the cell. Due to its flexible pore size substances can move in and out of the cell
depending on the requirement of the cell.
• Gases (CO2 and O2 ) move across the cell membrane by the process of diffusion. Diffusion means
spontaneous movement of a substance from a region of high concentration to a region of its lower
• Water also moves in and out of the cell membrane. Movement of water molecules through a selectively
permeable membrane is known as Osmosis. Osmosis is the movement of water molecules from a region
of high water concentration to a region of low water concentration through a semi permeable membrane.
Hypertonic, isotonic and Hypotonic solutions
When a cell is placed in a solution, three things can happen:
a) If the outer solution has a higher water concentration than the inside of the cell then water will move
inside the cell, i.e. the cell will gain water by osmosis. Such a solution is HYPOTONIC.
b) If the outer solution has a lower water concentration than the inside of the cell then water will move out
of the cell, i.e. the cell will lose water by osmosis. Such a solution is HYPERTONIC.
c) If the outer solution has exactly the same water concentration than the inside of the cell then there is no
net movement of water across the cell membrane. Such a solution is ISOTONIC.

Functions of cell membrane:

Diffusion and Osmosis are special processes that help in : Absorption of water by plant roots, movement of
molecules like ATP, movement of food molecules etc.
In some organisms like Amoeba, cell membrane also helps the organism to engulf food from the outer
Movement of food particles inside the cell by infolding of the cell membrane and subsequent formation of the
food vacuole is known as ENDOCYTOSIS.
Therefore, transport of substances takes place across a cell membrane in the following ways:
• By diffusion (eg. Gases)
• By movement of water (osmosis). Substances that are water soluble also move when there is a difference
in concentration.
• Some substances have to be moved against the concentration gradient ( low to high) and this requires
• Movement of food particles in a cell eg. in amoeba by endocytosis.

Composition of Plasma Membrane: it is chiefly composed of lipids + Proteins

How can the structure of Plasma Membrane be observed: Through Electron microscope. 2
Plant cells have an additional covering on the outside in addition to the cell membrane. This is the cell wall.
It is rigid, non living and gives additional strength to the cell. It is mainly composed of cellulose.Cellulose
provides structural strength to the cell. (Cellulose is a complex carbohydrate.)
Other substances that constitute the cell wall are pectin and lignin. Lignin is one of the strongest substances
known to man.
When a living plant cell loses water through osmosis, there is shrinkage of the cell cytoplasm and cell contents
away from the cell wall. This is known as Plasmolysis.
Advantage of cell wall: cell wall permits the plant cells, fungi and bacteria to withstand pressures created when
these cells are placed in very dilute (hypotonic) media without bursting. Plant cells, cells of fungi and bacteria
are able to withstand greater changes in the surrounding medium than the animal cells.

Nuclear Membrane: is a double layered covering that protects the nuclear contents.

Nuclear pore: allows the transfer of material from inside the nucleus to outside

Chromatin Material: is an entangled mass of thread like structures.It gets

organized into chromosomes during cell division.

Nucleoplasm (Fluid in the nucleus)

Functions of Nucleus:
1. Plays a central role in cell reproduction
2. Has chromosomes that contain information for inheritance of features from parents to offsprings.
3. Controls activities of the cell.
• Are visible as rod shaped structures during cell division.
• Contain information for inheritance
• Are made up of DNA and Proteins.

• = Deoxy ribo nucleic acid
• Contain information necessary for constructing and organizing cells
• DNA has functional segments known as genes.


The term prokaryote comes from Greek words that mean “before nucleus” or “prenucleus,” while eukaryote
means “true nucleus.”

The cell structure of prokaryotes differs greatly from that of eukaryotes. The defining characteristic is the
absence of a nucleus. The genetic material of prokaryotes is present as irregular DNA/protein complex in the
cytoplasm called the nucleoid, which lacks a nuclear envelope. Prokaryotes generally lack membrane-bound cell
compartments: such as mitochondria and chloroplasts. Both eukaryotes and prokaryotes contain large
RNA/protein structures called ribosomes, which produce protein. Prokaryotes are usually much smaller than
eukaryotic cells. Prokaryotes also differ from eukaryotes in that they contain only a single loop of stable 3
chromosomal DNA stored in an area named the nucleoid, while eukaryote DNA is found on tightly bound and
organized chromosomes. In photosynthetic prokaryotic bacteria, the chlorophyll pigment is present in bag-like
membrane bound structures.


1. Generally smaller in size than eukaryotic cells 1. Generally larger in size than prokaryotic cells
2. Have a poorly defined nuclear region due to 2. have a well defined nuclear region surrounded by a
absence of nuclear membrane. nuclear membrane
3. Single chromosome (Nucleoid) is present. 3. More than one chromosomes are present in the
4.Membrane bound cell organelles are absent 4. Membrane bound cell organelles like mitochondria,
ER, Golgi bodies etc are present.

A Prokaryotic Cell

A Eukaryotic Cell

The cytoplasm is the part of a cell that is enclosed within the plasma membrane. In eukaryotic cells the
cytoplasm contains organelles, such as mitochondria, that are filled with liquid kept separate from the rest of the
cytoplasm by biological membranes. Such membrane bound structures are absent in prokaryotic cells. The
cytoplasm is the site where most cellular activities occur. 4
Organelles are membrane-bound compartments within the cell that have specific functions. Some major
organelles that are suspended in the cytoplasm are the mitochondria, the endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi
apparatus, lysosomes, vacuoles and in plant cells Plastids like chloroplasts.

The Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) is a eukaryotic organelle that forms an interconnected network of tubules,
vesicles, and cisternae within cells. It has a similar structure as the plasma membrane.

On the basis of presence or absence of ribosomes, ER may be classified into two groups:
• Rough ER: The surface of the rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER) is studded with protein-
manufacturing ribosomes giving it a "rough" appearance (hence its name)
• Smooth ER: The smooth endoplasmic reticulum (SER) has functions in several metabolic processes,
including synthesis of lipids and drug detoxification.

Functions of ER:
1. To serve as channels for the transport of materials within the cell.
2. Help in the manufacture of lipids and proteins that are used for building the cell membrane i.e.
membrane biogenesis.
3. SER manufactures lipids important for cell functions.
4. RER manufactures proteins required for various cellular activities.
5. ER provides a cytoplasmic framework by providing an area for come biochemical activities of the cell.
6. SER plays an important role in detoxification of many poisons and drugs.

Golgi Apparatus: It was identified in 1898 by the Italian physician Camillo Golgi and was named after him.

The Golgi is composed of membrane-bound stacks known as cisternae. The primary function of the Golgi
apparatus is to process and package the macromolecules such as proteins and lipids that are synthesized by the
After leaving the production site of the ER, most products are transported to the Golgi apparatus. The Golgi
Apparatus consists of several flattened saclike membranes. These sacs sit one on top of the other like a stack of
pancakes, and all of the sacs are interconnected. The smooth ER manufactures the Golgi apparatus by pinching
off parts of itself. These bits of membrane add themselves to the Golgi apparatus.
Function of Golgi apparatus:
• It is like a cellular post office- it packages and labels items and then sends them to different parts of the
• It primarily modifies proteins delivered from the rough endoplasmic reticulum but is also involved in the
transport of lipids around the cell, and the creation of lysosomes.
• It also helps in formation of complex sugars from simple sugars.

Lysosomes: Lysosomes are Membrane bound sacs filled with powerful digestive enzymes. These enzymes are
manufactured by RER.
Role and function of lysosomes:
• As Waste disposal system of the cell: Lysosomes are the cells' garbage disposal system. Any foreign
material such as bacteria that enters a cell and worn out cell organelles are engulfed by lysosomes and
broken down.
• Digestive bags of the cell: Since lysosomes are little digestion machines, they go to work when the cell
absorbs or eats some food. Once the material is inside the cell, the lysosomes attach and release their
enzymes. The enzymes break down complex molecules that can include complex sugars and proteins. If 5
food is scarce and the cell is starving, the lysosomes go to work even if there is no food for the cell. When
the signal is sent out, lysosomes will actually digest the cell organelles for nutrients.
• Suicide bags of the cell: Sometimes, when the cell gets damaged, the lysosomes burst and the enzymes
digest their own cell, so they are also called suicide bags of the cell.

Mitochondria: (singular: mitochondrion) are known as Power Houses of the cell.

The word mitochondrion comes from the Greek mitos, thread + khondrion, granule. Mitochondria are membrane-
bound organelles, and like the nucleus have a double membrane. The outer membrane is fairly smooth and
porous. But the inner membrane forms folds called cristae. The cristae greatly increase the inner membrane's
surface area. This is useful as more space is available for reactions since it is on these cristae that food (sugar) is
combined with oxygen to produce ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) - the primary energy source for the cell. The
process of creating cell energy is known as cellular respiration. ATP is also known as Energy Currency of the
Mitochondria are strange organelles as they have their own DNA and ribososmes.Due to this, they are able to
make some of their own proteins. So they are also known as semi-autonomous bodies.

It is a double membrane bound organelle involved in the synthesis and storage of food, and is commonly found
within the cells of photosynthetic organisms, like plants.
In addition to the inner and outer membranes of the envelope, chloroplasts have a third internal membrane
system, called the thylakoid membrane. The thylakoid membrane forms a network of flattened discs called
thylakoids, which are frequently arranged in stacks called grana.Grana are embedded in a material called stroma.

Types of Plastids:
• A plastid containing green pigment (chlorophyll) is called chloroplast . They also contain yellow and
orange pigments in addition to chlorophyll.Chloroplasts are the site of photosynthesis in plant cells.
• A plastid containing pigments apart from green is called chromoplast.
• A plastid that lacks pigments is called leucoplast, and is involved mainly in food storage. A leucoplast
may stores starch fats or proteins.
Like mitochondria, plastids have their own DNA and ribosomes. So plastids too, can manufacture some proteins
for themselves and are called semi-autonomous bodies.

They are found in both animal and plant cells but are much larger in plant cells. Vacuoles might store food or any
variety of nutrients a cell might need to survive. They can even store waste products so the rest of the cell is
protected from contamination.
When a plant cell has stopped growing, there is usually one very large vacuole. Sometimes that vacuole can take
up 50 – 90% of the cell's volume.
The structure of vacuoles is fairly simple. There is a membrane that surrounds a mass of fluid. In that fluid are
nutrients or waste products.These include amino acids, sugars, certain organic acids and some proteins.
Vacuoles tend to be large in plant cells and play a role in turgor pressure. When a plant is well-watered, water
collects in cell vacuoles producing rigidity in the plant. Without sufficient water, pressure in the vacuole is
reduced and the plant wilts.
In unicellular organism like amoeba, the food vacuole contains the items consumed by amoeba through
Most unicellular organism also have specialised vacuoles that control the water content and also help in
removing wastes from the cell. 6 7