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5.6: Cell Organelles

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  • Ribosome Review

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) represents an important structure in living cells. It is a component of a ribosome, the cell structure where proteins are synthesized. Large ribosomal subunit (50S) of Haloarcula marismortui, facing the 30S subunit. The ribosomal proteins are shown in blue, the rRNA in ochre (a shade of brown and yellow), the active site in red. All living cells contain ribosomes, whether they are prokaryotic or eukaryotic cells. However, only eukaryotic cells also contain a nucleus and several other types of organelles.

    50S subunit of the ribosome ribbon model
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Ribosomal subunit

    An organelle is a structure within the cytoplasm of a eukaryotic cell that is enclosed within a membrane and performs a specific job. Organelles are involved in many vital cell functions. Organelles in animal cells include the nucleus, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, vesicles, and vacuoles. Ribosomes are not enclosed within a membrane but are still commonly referred to as organelles in eukaryotic cells.

    The Nucleus

    The nucleus is the largest organelle in a eukaryotic cell and is considered to be the cell’s control center. It contains most of the cell’s DNA, which makes up chromosomes and is encoded with the genetic instructions for making proteins. The function of the nucleus is to regulate gene expression, including controlling which proteins the cell makes. In addition to DNA, the nucleus contains a thick liquid called nucleoplasm that is similar in composition to the cytosol found in the cytoplasm outside the nucleus (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)). Most eukaryotic cells contain just a single nucleus, but some types of cells, such as red blood cells, contain no nucleus. A few other types of cells, such as muscle cells, contain multiple nuclei.

    Cell Nucleus
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): This closeup of a cell nucleus shows that it is surrounded by a structure called the nuclear envelope, which contains tiny perforations, or pores. The nucleus also contains a dense center called the nucleolus.

    As you can see from the model in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), the membrane enclosing the nucleus is called the nuclear envelope. This is actually a double membrane that encloses the entire organelle and isolates its contents from the cellular cytoplasm. Tiny holes, called nuclear pores, allow large molecules to pass through the nuclear envelope with the help of special proteins. Large proteins and RNA molecules must be able to pass through the nuclear envelope so proteins can be synthesized in the cytoplasm and the genetic material can be maintained inside the nucleus. The nucleolus shown in the model below is mainly involved in the assembly of ribosomes. After being produced in the nucleolus, ribosomes are exported to the cytoplasm where they are involved in the synthesis of proteins.


    The mitochondrion (plural, mitochondria) is an organelle that makes energy available to the cell (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). This is why mitochondria are sometimes referred to as the power plants of the cell. They use energy from organic compounds such as glucose to make molecules of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), an energy-carrying molecule that is used almost universally inside cells for energy.

    Scientists think that mitochondria were once free-living organisms because they contain their own DNA. They theorize that ancient prokaryotes infected (or were engulfed by) larger prokaryotic cells, and the two organisms evolved a symbiotic relationship that benefited both of them. The larger cells provided the smaller prokaryotes with a place to live. In return, the larger cells got extra energy from the smaller prokaryotes. Eventually, the smaller prokaryotes became permanent guests of the larger cells, as organelles inside them. This theory is called the endosymbiotic theory, and it is widely accepted by biologists today

    Animal mitochondrion diagram
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Mitochondria, organelles specialized to carry out aerobic respiration, contain an inner membrane folded into cristae, which form two separate compartments: the inner membrane space and the matrix. The Krebs Cycle takes place in the matrix. The electron transport chain is embedded in the inner membrane and uses both compartments to make ATP by chemiosmosis. Mitochondria have their own DNA and ribosomes, resembling those of prokaryotic organisms.

    Mitochondrial Compartments

    The double membrane nature of the mitochondria results in five distinct compartments, each with an important role in cellular respiration. These compartments are:

    1. the outer mitochondrial membrane,
    2. the intermembrane space (the space between the outer and inner membranes),
    3. the inner mitochondrial membrane,
    4. the cristae (formed by infoldings of the inner membrane), and
    5. the matrix (space within the inner membrane).

    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 the 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. The 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.
    One drawings and two micrographs of smooth and rough Endoplasmic Reticulum
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The ER is a winding network of thin membranous sacs found in close association with the cell nucleus. The smooth and rough endoplasmic reticula are very different in appearance and function (source: mouse tissue). (b) Rough ER is studded with numerous ribosomes, which are sites of protein synthesis (source: mouse tissue). EM × 110,000. (c) Smooth ER synthesizes phospholipids, steroid hormones, regulates the concentration of cellular Ca2+, metabolizes some carbohydrates, and breaks down certain toxins.

    Golgi Apparatus

    The Golgi apparatus (Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)) is a large organelle that processes proteins and prepares them for use both inside and outside the cell. It was identified in 1898 by the Italian physician Camillo Golgi. 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 Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum. 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. The Golgi apparatus tends to be larger and more numerous in cells that synthesize and secrete large quantities of materials; for example, the plasma B cells and the antibody-secreting cells of the immune system have prominent Golgi complexes.

    The Golgi apparatus manipulates products from the Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) and also produces new organelles called lysosomes. Proteins and other products of the ER are sent to the Golgi apparatus, which organizes, modifies, packages, and tags them. Some of these products are transported to other areas of the cell and some are exported from the cell through exocytosis. Enzymatic proteins are packaged as new lysosomes.

    Golgi Apparatus involved in endomembrane system export import.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): The rough ER is continuous with the nuclear envelope and has ribosomes on it's surface. The ribosomes produce proteins such as the one shown which remains bound to the membrane of the rough ER. The membrane of the rough ER pinches off to form a transport vesicle containing the protein. The vesicle fuses with the cis face of the Golgi apparatus. The protein is now found on the membrane of the Golgi apparatus and travels along the cisternae. Once it reaches the trans face of the Golgi apparatus, it gets packaged into a secretory vesicle that sends the protein to the plasma membrane.

    The stack of cisternae has four functional regions: the cis-Golgi network, medial-Golgi, endo-Golgi, and trans-Golgi network. Vesicles from the ER fuse with the network and subsequently progress through the stack from the cis- to the trans-Golgi network, where they are packaged and sent to their destination. Each cisterna includes special Golgi enzymes which modify or help to modify proteins that travel through it. Proteins may be modified by the addition of a carbohydrate group (glycosylation) or phosphate group (phosphorylation). These modifications may form a signal sequence on the protein, which determines the final destination of the protein. For example, the addition of mannose-6-phosphate signals the protein for lysosomes.

    Vesicles and Vacuoles

    Both vesicles and vacuoles are sac-like organelles that store and transport materials in the cell. Vesicles are much smaller than vacuoles and have a variety of functions. The vesicles that pinch off from the membranes of the ER and Golgi apparatus store and transport protein and lipid molecules. You can see an example of this type of transport vesicle in the figure above. Some vesicles are used as chambers for biochemical reactions. Other vesicles include:

    • Lysosomes, which use enzymes to break down foreign matter and dead cells.
    • Peroxisomes, which use oxygen to break down poisons.
    • Transport vesicles, transport contents between organelle as well as between cell exterior and interior.


    Centrioles are organelles involved in cell division. The function of centrioles is to help organize the chromosomes before cell division occurs so that each daughter cell has the correct number of chromosomes after the cell divides. Centrioles are found only in animal cells and are located near the nucleus. Each centriole is made mainly of a protein named tubulin. The centriole is cylindrical in shape and consists of many microtubules, as shown in the model pictured below.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Centrioles are tiny cylinders near the nucleus, enlarged here to show their tubular structure.


    Ribosomes are small structures where proteins are made. Although they are not enclosed within a membrane, they are frequently considered organelles. Each ribosome is formed of two subunits, like the one pictured at the top of this section. Both subunits consist of proteins and RNA. RNA from the nucleus carries the genetic code, copied from DNA, which remains in the nucleus. At the ribosome, the genetic code in RNA is used to assemble and join together amino acids to make proteins. Ribosomes can be found alone or in groups within the cytoplasm as well as on the RER.


    1. Define organelle.
    2. Describe the structure and function of the nucleus.
    3. Explain how the nucleus, ribosomes, rough endoplasmic reticulum, and Golgi apparatus work together to make and transport proteins.
    4. Why are mitochondria referred to as the power plants of the cell?
    5. What roles are played by vesicles and vacuoles?
    6. Why do all cells need ribosomes, even prokaryotic cells that lack a nucleus and other cell organelles?
    7. Explain endosymbiotic theory as it relates to mitochondria. What is one piece of evidence that supports this theory?
    8. Lysosomes and peroxisomes are types of:
      1. A. Organelles
      2. B. Vesicles
      3. C. Vacuoles
      4. D. Both A and B
    9. Which of the following organelles fits best with each description of function? Choose only one organelle for each answer: Golgi apparatus, centrioles, nucleolus, nucleus, rough endoplasmic reticulum
      1. a. Contains the genetic instructions for the production of proteins
      2. b. Organizes chromosomes before cell division
      3. c. Provides a framework for ribosomes
      4. d. Packages and labels proteins
      5. e. Assembles ribosomes
    10. True or False. All eukaryotic cells have a nucleus.
    11. True or False. The outer surface of the nucleus of a eukaryotic cell is not completely solid.


    1. 50S-subunit of the ribosome by Yikrazuul, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
    2. Cell nucleus by staff (2014). "Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014". WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436. licensed CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
    3. Animal mitochondrion by LadyofHats, released into the public domain via Wikimedia Commons
    4. Endoplasmic reticulum by OpenStax, licensed CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
    5. Golgi Apparatus by Openstax, licensed CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
    6. Centrioles by staff (2014). "Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014". WikiJournal of Medicine 1 (2). DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN 2002-4436. licensed CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
    7. Text adapted from Human Biology by CK-12 licensed CC BY-NC 3.0