3.1 The Cell Membrane
The cell membrane provides a barrier around the cell, separating its internal components from the extracellular environment. It is composed of a phospholipid bilayer, with hydrophobic internal lipid “tails” and hydrophilic external phosphate “heads.” Various membrane proteins are scattered throughout the bilayer, both inserted within it and attached to it peripherally. The cell membrane is selectively permeable, allowing only a limited number of materials to diffuse through its lipid bilayer. All materials that cross the membrane do so using passive (non energy-requiring) or active (energy-requiring) transport processes. During passive transport, materials move by simple diffusion or by facilitated diffusion through the membrane, down their concentration gradient. Water passes through the membrane in a diffusion process called osmosis. During active transport, energy is expended to assist material movement across the membrane in a direction against their concentration gradient. Active transport may take place with the help of protein pumps or through the use of vesicles.
3.2 The Cytoplasm and Cellular Organelles
The internal environmental of a living cell is made up of a fluid, jelly-like substance called cytosol, which consists mainly of water, but also contains various dissolved nutrients and other molecules. The cell contains an array of cellular organelles, each one performing a unique function and helping to maintain the health and activity of the cell. The cytosol and organelles together compose the cell’s cytoplasm. Most organelles are surrounded by a lipid membrane similar to the cell membrane of the cell. The endoplasmic reticulum (ER), Golgi apparatus, and lysosomes share a functional connectivity and are collectively referred to as the endomembrane system. There are two types of ER: smooth and rough. While the smooth ER performs many functions, including lipid synthesis and ion storage, the rough ER is mainly responsible for protein synthesis using its associated ribosomes. The rough ER sends newly made proteins to the Golgi apparatus where they are modified and packaged for delivery to various locations within or outside of the cell. Some of these protein products are enzymes destined to break down unwanted material and are packaged as lysosomes for use inside the cell.
Cells also contain mitochondria and peroxisomes, which are the organelles responsible for producing the cell’s energy supply and detoxifying certain chemicals, respectively. Biochemical reactions within mitochondria transform energy-carrying molecules into the usable form of cellular energy known as ATP. Peroxisomes contain enzymes that transform harmful substances such as free radicals into oxygen and water. Cells also contain a miniaturized “skeleton” of protein filaments that extend throughout its interior. Three different kinds of filaments compose this cytoskeleton (in order of increasing thickness): microfilaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules. Each cytoskeletal component performs unique functions as well as provides a supportive framework for the cell.
3.3 The Nucleus and DNA Replication
The nucleus is the command center of the cell, containing the genetic instructions for all of the materials a cell will make (and thus all of its functions it can perform). The nucleus is encased within a membrane of two interconnected lipid bilayers, side-by-side. This nuclear envelope is studded with protein-lined pores that allow materials to be trafficked into and out of the nucleus. The nucleus contains one or more nucleoli, which serve as sites for ribosome synthesis. The nucleus houses the genetic material of the cell: DNA. DNA is normally found as a loosely contained structure called chromatin within the nucleus, where it is wound up and associated with a variety of histone proteins. When a cell is about to divide, the chromatin coils tightly and condenses to form chromosomes.
There is a pool of cells constantly dividing within your body. The result is billions of new cells being created each day. Before any cell is ready to divide, it must replicate its DNA so that each new daughter cell will receive an exact copy of the organism’s genome. A variety of enzymes are enlisted during DNA replication. These enzymes unwind the DNA molecule, separate the two strands, and assist with the building of complementary strands along each parent strand. The original DNA strands serve as templates from which the nucleotide sequence of the new strands are determined and synthesized. When replication is completed, two identical DNA molecules exist. Each one contains one original strand and one newly synthesized complementary strand.
3.4 Protein Synthesis
DNA stores the information necessary for instructing the cell to perform all of its functions. Cells use the genetic code stored within DNA to build proteins, which ultimately determine the structure and function of the cell. This genetic code lies in the particular sequence of nucleotides that make up each gene along the DNA molecule. To “read” this code, the cell must perform two sequential steps. In the first step, transcription, the DNA code is converted into an RNA code. A molecule of messenger RNA that is complementary to a specific gene is synthesized in a process similar to DNA replication. The molecule of mRNA provides the code to synthesize a protein. In the process of translation, the mRNA attaches to a ribosome. Next, tRNA molecules shuttle the appropriate amino acids to the ribosome, one-by-one, coded by sequential triplet codons on the mRNA, until the protein is fully synthesized. When completed, the mRNA detaches from the ribosome, and the protein is released. Typically, multiple ribosomes attach to a single mRNA molecule at once such that multiple proteins can be manufactured from the mRNA concurrently.
3.5 Cell Growth and Division
The life of cell consists of stages that make up the cell cycle. After a cell is born, it passes through an interphase before it is ready to replicate itself and produce daughter cells. This interphase includes two gap phases (G1 and G2), as well as an S phase, during which its DNA is replicated in preparation for cell division. The cell cycle is under precise regulation by chemical messengers both inside and outside the cell that provide “stop” and “go” signals for movement from one phase to the next. Failures of these signals can result in cells that continue to divide uncontrollably, which can lead to cancer.
Once a cell has completed interphase and is ready for cell division, it proceeds through four separate stages of mitosis (prophase, metaphase, anaphase, and telophase). Telophase is followed by the division of the cytoplasm (cytokinesis), which generates two daughter cells. This process takes place in all normally dividing cells of the body except for the germ cells that produce eggs and sperm.
3.6 Cellular Differentiation
One of the major areas of research in biology is that of how cells specialize to assume their unique structures and functions, since all cells essentially originate from a single fertilized egg. Cell differentiation is the process of cells becoming specialized as they body develops. A stem cell is an unspecialized cell that can divide without limit as needed and can, under specific conditions, differentiate into specialized cells. Stem cells are divided into several categories according to their potential to differentiate. While all somatic cells contain the exact same genome, different cell types only express some of those genes at any given time. These differences in gene expression ultimately dictate a cell’s unique morphological and physiological characteristics. The primary mechanism that determines which genes will be expressed and which ones will not is through the use of different transcription factor proteins, which bind to DNA and promote or hinder the transcription of different genes. Through the action of these transcription factors, cells specialize into one of hundreds of different cell types in the human body.