Eukaryotic Cell: Structure and Function
Introduction to eukaryotic cell structure
By definition, eukaryotic cells are cells that contain a membrane-bound nucleus, which is not present in bacterial or archaeal cells. Besides the nucleus, eukaryotic cells
In previous sections, we considered the Design Challenge of making cells larger than a small bacterium—more precisely, growing cells to sizes at which, in the eyes of natural selection, relying on diffusion of substances for transport through a highly viscous cytosol comes with inherent functional trade-offs that offset most selective benefits of getting larger. In the lectures and readings on bacterial cell structure, we discovered some morphological features of large bacteria that allow them
As we transition our focus to eukaryotic cells, we want you to approach the study by constantly returning to the Design Challenge. We will cover many subcellular structures unique to eukaryotes, and you will
Figure 1. These figures show the major organelles and other cell components of (a) a typical animal cell and (
The plasma membrane
Like bacteria and archaea, eukaryotic cells have a plasma membrane, a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins that separates the internal contents of the cell from its surrounding environment. The plasma membrane controls the passage of organic molecules, ions, water, and oxygen into and out of the cell. Wastes (such as carbon dioxide and ammonia) also leave the cell by passing through the plasma membrane, usually with some help of protein transporters.
Figure 2. The eukaryotic plasma membrane is a phospholipid bilayer with proteins and cholesterol embedded in it.
As discussed in bacterial cell membranes, the plasma membranes of eukaryotic cells may also adopt unique structural conformations. For instance, in cells that specialize in absorption the plasma membrane often fold into fingerlike projections called microvilli (singular = microvillus) (see figure below). The "folding" of the membrane into microvilli increases the surface area for absorption while minimally impacting the cytosolic volume. We can find such cells lining the small intestine, the organ that absorbs nutrients from digested food.
An aside: People with celiac disease have an immune response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. The immune response damages microvilli. As a result, afflicted individuals have an impaired ability to absorb nutrients. This can lead to malnutrition, cramping, and diarrhea.
Figure 3. Microvilli, shown here as they appear on cells lining the small intestine, increase the surface area available for absorption.
The cytoplasm refers to the entire region of a cell between the plasma membrane and the nuclear envelope.
Typically, the nucleus is the most prominent organelle in a cell (see figure below) when viewed through a microscope. The nucleus (plural = nuclei) houses the cell’s DNA. Let’s look at it in more detail.
Figure 4. The nucleus stores chromatin (DNA plus proteins) in a gel-like substance called the nucleoplasm. The nucleolus is a condensed region of chromatin where ribosome synthesis occurs. The boundary of the nucleus
The nuclear envelope
The nuclear envelope is a double phospholipid bilayer that
Chromatin and chromosomes
Chromosomes are structures within the nucleus that
Chromosomes are only
Figure 5. (a) This image shows various levels of the organization of chromatin (DNA and protein). (b) This image shows paired chromosomes. Credit (
Some chromosomes have sections of DNA that encode ribosomal RNA. A darkly staining area within the nucleus called the nucleolus (plural = nucleoli) aggregates the ribosomal RNA with associated proteins to assemble the ribosomal subunits that
Discuss amongst yourselves. Use the Design Challenge rubric to consider the nucleus in more detail. What "problems" does an organelle like the nucleus solve? What are
Ribosomes are the cellular structures responsible for the process of protein synthesis referred to as translation. When viewed through an electron microscope, ribosomes appear either as clusters (polyribosomes) or single, tiny dots that float freely in the cytoplasm. They may also appear to
Electron microscopy has shown us that ribosomes, which are large complexes of protein and RNA,
Mitochondria (singular = mitochondrion)
The structure of the mitochondria can vary significantly depending on the organism and the state of the cell cycle which one is observing. The typical textbook image, however, depicts mitochondria as oval-shaped organelles with a double inner and outer membrane (see figure below); learn to recognize this generic representation. Both the inner and outer membranes are phospholipid bilayers embedded with proteins that mediate transport across them and catalyze various other biochemical reactions. The inner membrane layer has folds called cristae that increase the surface area into which
Figure 7. This electron micrograph shows a mitochondrion as viewed with a transmission electron microscope. This organelle has an outer membrane and an inner membrane. The inner membrane contains folds, called cristae, which increase its surface area. The space between the two membranes
Discuss: Processes like glycolysis, lipid biosynthesis, and nucleotide biosynthesis all have compounds that feed into the TCA cycle—some of which occurs in the mitochondria. What are
There are many other organelles, but they all serve essential functions to the cell. Let’s introduce a few more.
Peroxisomes are small, round organelles enclosed by single membranes. These organelles carry out chemical reactions known as redox reactions that oxidize and break down fatty acids and amino acids. They also help to detoxify many toxins that may enter the body. Many of these redox reactions release hydrogen peroxide, H2O2, which would be damaging to cells; however, when these reactions are confined to peroxisomes, enzymes safely break down the H2O2 into harmless oxygen and water. For example, alcohol is detoxified by peroxisomes in liver cells. Glyoxysomes, which are specialized peroxisomes in plants, are responsible for converting stored fats into sugars.
Animal cells have another set of organelles not found in plant cells: lysosomes. Colloquially, the lysosomes are sometimes called the cell’s “garbage disposal”. 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. In plant cells, many of the same digestive processes take place in vacuoles.
The two organelles used for breaking substances down are lysosomes and peroxisomes. They do similar things but in different ways. The main difference is that lysosomes have enzymes that break things down but at a very low pH (think- does this mean acidic or basic? What does that mean for the H+ concentration in the lysosome?). On the other hand, peroxisomes also have catalytic enzymes but the main highlight is that H2O2 is broken down in this organelle.
Try to jot down a sentence or two to answer these questions: Why would the cells create two different compartments to break things down? What are the benefits, and costs to this separation of labor? What does the low [H+] mean for the enzymes in the lysosome?
Vesicles and vacuoles
Vesicles and vacuoles are membrane-bound sacs that function in storage and transport. Other than the fact that vacuoles are somewhat larger than vesicles, there is a very subtle distinction between them: the membranes of vesicles can fuse with either the plasma membrane or other membrane systems within the cell. Additionally, some agents such as enzymes within plant vacuoles break down macromolecules. The membrane of a vacuole does not fuse with the membranes of other cellular components.
The central vacuole
Vacuoles as essential components of plant cells. If you look at the cartoon figure of the plant cell, you will see that it depicts a large central vacuole that occupies most of the area of the cell. The central vacuole plays a key role in regulating the cell’s concentration of water in changing environmental conditions.
Vacuole factoid: Have you ever noticed that if 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.
The centrosome is the organelle where all microtubules originate in animal and yeast cells. It is also 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 (see figure below). Each centriole is a cylinder of nine triplets of microtubules.
Figure 8. 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.
The centrosome 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.
The cell wall
If you examine the diagram above depicting plant and animal cells, you will see in the diagram of a plant cell a structure external to the plasma membrane called 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 bacterial cell walls is peptidoglycan, the major organic molecule in the plant cell wall is cellulose (see structure below), a polysaccharide made up of glucose subunits.
Figure 9. Cellulose is a long chain of β-glucose molecules connected by a 1-4 linkage. The dashed lines at each end of the figure indicate a series of many more glucose units. The size of the page makes it impossible to portray an entire cellulose molecule.
Chloroplasts are plant cell organelles that carry out photosynthesis. Like the mitochondria, chloroplasts have their own DNA and ribosomes, but chloroplasts have an entirely different function.
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 (figure below). 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.
Figure 10. The chloroplast has an outer membrane, an inner membrane, and membrane structures called thylakoids that are stacked into grana. The space inside the thylakoid membranes is called the thylakoid space. The light harvesting reactions take place in the thylakoid membranes, and the synthesis of sugar takes place in the fluid inside the inner membrane, which is called the stroma. Chloroplasts also have their own genome, which is contained on a single circular chromosome.
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.
Evolution connection: Endosymbiosis
We have mentioned that both mitochondria and chloroplasts contain DNA and ribosomes. Have you wondered why? Strong evidence points to endosymbiosis as the explanation.
Symbiosis is a relationship in which organisms from two separate species depend on each other for their survival. Endosymbiosis (endo- = “within”) is a mutually beneficial relationship in which one organism lives inside the other. Endosymbiotic relationships abound in nature. For instance, some microbes that live in our digestive tracks produce vitamin K. The relationship between these microbes and us (their hosts) is said to be mutually beneficial or symbiotic. The relationship is beneficial for us because we are unable to synthesize vitamin K; the microbes do it for us instead. The relationship is also beneficial for the microbes because they receive abundant food from the environment of the large intestine, and they are protected both from other organisms and from drying out.
Scientists have long noticed that bacteria, mitochondria, and chloroplasts are similar in size. We also know that bacteria have DNA and ribosomes, just as mitochondria and chloroplasts do. Scientists believe that host cells and bacteria formed an endosymbiotic relationship when the host cells ingested both aerobic and autotrophic bacteria (cyanobacteria) but did not destroy them. Through many millions of years of evolution, these ingested bacteria became more specialized in their functions, with the aerobic bacteria becoming mitochondria and the autotrophic bacteria becoming chloroplasts. There will be more on this later in the reading.