3.7.3: Comparing Plant and Animal Cells
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Although they are both eukaryotic cells, there are unique structural differences between animal and plant cells.
- Differentiate between the structures found in animal and plant cells
- Centrosomes and lysosomes are found in animal cells, but do not exist within plant cells.
- The lysosomes are the animal cell’s “garbage disposal”, while in plant cells the same function takes place in vacuoles.
- Plant cells have a cell wall, chloroplasts and other specialized plastids, and a large central vacuole, which are not found within animal cells.
- The cell wall is a rigid covering that protects the cell, provides structural support, and gives shape to the cell.
- The chloroplasts, found in plant cells, contain a green pigment called chlorophyll, which captures the light energy that drives the reactions of plant photosynthesis.
- The central vacuole plays a key role in regulating a plant cell’s concentration of water in changing environmental conditions.
- protist: Any of the eukaryotic unicellular organisms including protozoans, slime molds and some algae; historically grouped into the kingdom Protoctista.
- autotroph: Any organism that can synthesize its food from inorganic substances, using heat or light as a source of energy
- heterotroph: an organism that requires an external supply of energy in the form of food, as it cannot synthesize its own
Animal Cells versus Plant Cells
Each eukaryotic cell has a plasma membrane, cytoplasm, a nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria, peroxisomes, and in some, vacuoles; however, there are some striking differences between animal and plant cells. While both animal and plant cells have microtubule organizing centers (MTOCs), animal cells also have centrioles associated with the MTOC: a complex called the centrosome. Animal cells each have a centrosome and lysosomes, whereas plant cells do not. Plant cells have a cell wall, chloroplasts and other specialized plastids, and a large central vacuole, whereas animal cells do not.
The centrosome is a microtubule-organizing center found near the nuclei of animal cells. It contains a pair of centrioles, two structures that lie perpendicular to each other. Each centriole is a cylinder of nine triplets of microtubules. The centrosome (the organelle where all microtubules originate) replicates itself before a cell divides, and the centrioles appear to have some role in pulling the duplicated chromosomes to opposite ends of the dividing cell. However, the exact function of the centrioles in cell division isn’t clear, because cells that have had the centrosome removed can still divide; and plant cells, which lack centrosomes, are capable of cell division.
The Centrosome Structure: The centrosome consists of two centrioles that lie at right angles to each other. Each centriole is a cylinder made up of nine triplets of microtubules. Nontubulin proteins (indicated by the green lines) hold the microtubule triplets together.
Animal cells have another set of organelles not found in plant cells: lysosomes. The lysosomes are the cell’s “garbage disposal.” In plant cells, the digestive processes take place in vacuoles. Enzymes within the lysosomes aid the breakdown of proteins, polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids, and even worn-out organelles. These enzymes are active at a much lower pH than that of the cytoplasm. Therefore, the pH within lysosomes is more acidic than the pH of the cytoplasm. Many reactions that take place in the cytoplasm could not occur at a low pH, so the advantage of compartmentalizing the eukaryotic cell into organelles is apparent.
The Cell Wall
The cell wall is a rigid covering that protects the cell, provides structural support, and gives shape to the cell. Fungal and protistan cells also have cell walls. While the chief component of prokaryotic cell walls is peptidoglycan, the major organic molecule in the plant cell wall is cellulose, a polysaccharide comprised of glucose units. When you bite into a raw vegetable, like celery, it crunches. That’s because you are tearing the rigid cell walls of the celery cells with your teeth.
Like mitochondria, chloroplasts have their own DNA and ribosomes, but chloroplasts have an entirely different function. Chloroplasts are plant cell organelles that carry out photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the series of reactions that use carbon dioxide, water, and light energy to make glucose and oxygen. This is a major difference between plants and animals; plants (autotrophs) are able to make their own food, like sugars, while animals (heterotrophs) must ingest their food.
Like mitochondria, chloroplasts have outer and inner membranes, but within the space enclosed by a chloroplast’s inner membrane is a set of interconnected and stacked fluid-filled membrane sacs called thylakoids. Each stack of thylakoids is called a granum (plural = grana). The fluid enclosed by the inner membrane that surrounds the grana is called the stroma.
The chloroplasts contain a green pigment called chlorophyll, which captures the light energy that drives the reactions of photosynthesis. Like plant cells, photosynthetic protists also have chloroplasts. Some bacteria perform photosynthesis, but their chlorophyll is not relegated to an organelle.
The Central Vacuole
The central vacuole plays a key role in regulating the cell’s concentration of water in changing environmental conditions. When you forget to water a plant for a few days, it wilts. That’s because as the water concentration in the soil becomes lower than the water concentration in the plant, water moves out of the central vacuoles and cytoplasm. As the central vacuole shrinks, it leaves the cell wall unsupported. This loss of support to the cell walls of plant cells results in the wilted appearance of the plant. The central vacuole also supports the expansion of the cell. When the central vacuole holds more water, the cell gets larger without having to invest a lot of energy in synthesizing new cytoplasm.