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What Are Prokaryotic Cells?

Function, and Definition
Prokaryotes are single-celled organisms that are the earliest and most primitive forms of
life on earth. As organized in the Three Domain System, prokaryotes
include bacteria and archaeans. Some prokaryotes, such as cyanobacteria,
are photosynthetic organisms and are capable of photosynthesis.

Many prokaryotes are extremophiles and are able to live and thrive in various types of
extreme environments including hydrothermal vents, hot springs, swamps, wetlands,
and the guts of humans and animals (Helicobacter pylori). Prokaryotic bacteria can be
found almost anywhere and are part of the human microbiota. They live on your
skin, in your body, and on everyday objects in your environment.

Prokaryotic Cell Structure

Prokaryotic cells are not as complex as eukaryotic cells. They have no true nucleus as
the DNA is not contained within a membrane or separated from the rest of the cell, but
is coiled up in a region of the cytoplasm called the nucleoid. Prokaryotic organisms have
varying cell shapes. The most common bacteria shapes are spherical, rod-shaped, and

Using bacteria as our sample prokaryote, the following structures and organelles can be
found in bacterial cells:

 Capsule - Found in some bacterial cells, this additional outer covering protects
the cell when it is engulfed by other organisms, assists in retaining moisture, and
helps the cell adhere to surfaces and nutrients.
 Cell Wall - The cell wall is an outer covering that protects the bacterial cell and
gives it shape.
 Cytoplasm - Cytoplasm is a gel-like substance composed mainly of water that
also contains enzymes, salts, cell components, and various organic molecules.
 Cell Membrane or Plasma Membrane - The cell membrane surrounds the
cell's cytoplasm and regulates the flow of substances in and out of the cell.
 Pili (Pilus singular)- Hair-like structures on the surface of the cell that attach
to other bacterial cells. Shorter pili called fimbriae help bacteria attach to
 Flagella - Flagella are long, whip-like protrusion that aids in cellular
 Ribosomes - Ribosomes are cell structures responsible for protein production.
 Plasmids - Plasmids are gene carrying, circular DNA structures that are not
involved in reproduction.
 Nucleiod Region - Area of the cytoplasm that contains the single bacterial DNA
Prokaryotic cells lack organelles found in eukaryoitic cells such
as mitochondria, endoplasmic reticuli, and Golgi complexes. According to
the Endosymbiotic Theory, eukaryotic organelles are thought to have evolved from
prokaryotic cells living in endosymbiotic relationships with one another.

Like plant cells, bacteria have a cell wall. Some bacteria also have a polysaccharide
capsule layer surrounding the cell wall. It is in this layer where bacteria
produce biofilm, a slimy substance that helps bacterial colonies adhere to surfaces and
to each other for protection against antibiotics, chemicals, and other hazardous

Similar to plants and algae, some prokaryotes also have photosynthetic pigments. These
light-absorbing pigments enable photosynthetic bacteria to obtain nutrition from light.

Binary Fission

Most prokaryotes reproduce asexually through a process called binary fission.

During binary fission, the single DNA molecule replicates and the original cell is divided
into two identical cells.

Steps of Binary Fission

 Binary fission begins with DNA replication of the single DNA molecule. Both
copies of DNA attach to the cell membrane.
 Next, the cell membrane begins to grow between the two DNA molecules. Once
the bacterium just about doubles its original size, the cell membrane begins to
pinch inward.
 A cell wall then forms between the two DNA molecules dividing the original cell
into two identical daughter cells.

Although E.coli and other bacteria most commonly reproduce by binary fission, this
mode of reproduction does not produce genetic variation within the organism.

Prokaryotic Recombination

Genetic variation within prokaryotic organisms is accomplished

through recombination. In recombination, genes from one prokaryote are
incorporated into the genome of another prokaryote. Recombination is accomplished
in bacterial reproduction by the processes of conjugation, transformation, or

 In conjugation, bacteria connect with one another through a protein tube

structure called a pilus. Genes are transferred between bacteria through the pilus.
 In transformation, bacteria take up DNA from their surrounding environment.
The DNA is transported across the bacterial cell membrane and incorporated into
the bacterial cell's DNA.
 Transduction involves the exchange of bacterial DNA through viral
infection. Bacteriophages, viruses that infect bacteria, transfer bacterial DNA
from previously infected bacteria to any additional bacteria that they infect.

Prokaryotes Vs. Eukaryotes: What Are the

Comparing the Two Basic Types of Cells
All living organisms can be sorted into one of two groups depending on the fundamental
structure of their cells: the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes. Prokaryotes are organisms
made up of cells that lack a cell nucleus or any membrane-encased organelles.
Eukaryotes are organisms made up of cells that possess a membrane-bound nucleus
that holds genetic material as well as membrane-bound organelles.

Understanding Cells and Cell Membranes

The cell is a fundamental component of our modern definition of life and living things.
Cells are regarded as the basic building blocks of life and are used in the elusive
definition of what it means to be "alive."

Cells keep chemical processes tidy and compartmentalized so individual cell processes
do not interfere with others and the cell can go about its business of metabolizing,
reproducing, etc. To achieve this, cell components are enclosed in a membrane which
serves as a barrier between the outside world and the cell's internal chemistry. The cell
membrane is a selective barrier, meaning that it lets some chemicals in and others out.
In so doing it maintains the chemical balance necessary for the cell to live.

The cell membrane regulates the crossing of chemicals in and out of the cell in three
ways including:

 Diffusion (the tendency of solute molecules to minimize concentration and thus

move from an area of higher concentration towards an area of lower
concentration until concentrations equalize)
 Osmosis (the movement of solvent across a selective boundary in order to
equalize the concentration of a solute that is unable to move across the boundary)
 Selective transport (via membrane channels and membrane pumps)


Prokaryotes are organisms made up of cells that lack a cell nucleus or any membrane-
encased organelles. This means the genetic material DNA in prokaryotes is not bound
within a nucleus. In addition, the DNA is less structured in prokaryotes than in
eukaryotes: in prokaryotes, DNA is a single loop while in Eukaryotes DNA is organized
into chromosomes. Most prokaryotes are made up of just a single cell (unicellular) but
there are a few that are made of collections of cells (multicellular).

Scientists have divided the prokaryotes into two groups, the Bacteria, and the Archaea.
Some bacteria, including E Coli, Salmonella, and Listeria, are found in foods and can
cause disease; others are actually helpful to human digestion and other functions.
Archaea were discovered to be a unique life form which is capable of living indefinitely
in extreme environments such as hydrothermal vents or arctic ice.

A typical prokaryotic cell might contain the following parts:

 Cell wall: the membrane surrounding and protecting the cell

 Cytoplasm: all of the material inside a cell except the nucleus
 Flagella and pili: protein-based filaments found on the outside of some
prokaryotic cells
 Nucleoid: a nucleus-like region of the cell where genetic material is kept
 Plasmid: a small molecule of DNA that can reproduce independently


Eukaryotes are organisms made up of cells that possess a membrane-bound nucleus

(that holds DNA in the form of chromosomes) as well as membrane-bound organelles.
Eukaryotic organisms may be multicellular or single-celled organisms. All animals are
eukaryotes. Other eukaryotes include plants, fungi, and protists.

A typical eukaryotic cell is surrounded by a plasma membrane and contains many

different structures and organelles with a variety of functions. Examples include the
chromosomes (a structure of nucleic acids and protein which carry genetic information
in the form of genes), and the mitochondria (often described as the "powerhouse of the

Learn About the Different Types of Cells:

Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic
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National Center for Biotechnology Information

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byHeather Scoville
Updated March 29, 2018

The earth was formed about 4.6 billion years ago. For a very long period of the earth's
history, there was a very hostile and volcanic environment. It is difficult to imagine any
life being viable in those types of conditions. It wasn't until the end of
the Precambrian Era of the Geologic Time Scale when life began to form.

There are several theories about how life first came to be on Earth. These theories
include the formation of organic molecules within what is known as the "Primordial
Soup", life coming to Earth on asteroids (Panspermia Theory), or the first primitive cells
forming in hydrothermal vents.

Prokaryotic Cells

The simplest type of cells were most likely the first type of cells that formed on Earth.
These are called prokaryotic cells. All prokaryotic cells have a cell membrane
surrounding the cell, cytoplasm where all of the metabolic processes happen, ribosomes
that make proteins, and a circular DNA molecule called a nucleoid where the genetic
information is held. The majority of prokaryotic cells also have a rigid cell wall that is
used for protection. All prokaryotic organisms are unicellular, meaning the entire
organism is only one cell.

Prokaryotic organisms are asexual, meaning they do not need a partner to reproduce.
Most reproduce through a process called binary fission where basically the cell just
splits in half after copying its DNA. This means that without mutations within the DNA,
offspring are identical to their parent.

All organisms in the taxonomic domains Archaea and Bacteria are prokaryotic
organisms. In fact, many of the species within the Archaea domain are found within
hydrothermal vents. It is possible they were the first living organisms on Earth when life
was first forming.
Eukaryotic Cells

The other, much more complex, type of cell is called the eukaryotic cell. Like
prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells have cell membranes, cytoplasm, ribosomes, and
DNA. However, there are many more organelles within eukaryotic cells. These include a
nucleus to house the DNA, a nucleolus where ribosomes are made, rough endoplasmic
reticulum for protein assembly, smooth endoplasmic reticulum for making lipids, Golgi
apparatus for sorting and exporting proteins, mitochondria for creating energy, a
cytoskeleton for structure and transporting information, and vesicles to move proteins
around the cell. Some eukaryotic cells also have lysosomes or peroxisomes to digest
waste, vacuoles for storing water or other things, chloroplasts for photosynthesis, and
centrioles for splitting the cell during mitosis. Cell walls can also be found surrounding
some types of eukaryotic cells.

Most eukaryotic organisms are multicellular. This allows the eukaryotic cells within the
organism to become specialized. Through a process called differentiation, these cells
take on characteristics and jobs that can work with other types of cells to create an
entire organism. There are a few unicellular eukaryotes as well. These sometimes have
tiny hair-like projections called cilia to brush away debris and may also have a long
thread-like tail called a flagellum for locomotion.

The third taxonomic domain is called the Eukarya Domain. All eukaryotic organisms fall
under this domain. This domain includes all animals, plants, protists, and fungi.
Eukaryotes may use either asexual or sexual reproduction depending on the organism's
complexity. Sexual reproduction allows more diversity in offspring by mixing the genes
of the parents to form a new combination and hopefully a more favorable adaptation for
the environment.

The Evolution of Cells

Since prokaryotic cells are simpler than eukaryotic cells, it is thought they came into
existence first. The currently accepted theory of cell evolution is called
the Endosymbiotic Theory. It asserts that some of the organelles, namely the
mitochondria and chloroplast, were originally smaller prokaryotic cells engulfed by
larger prokaryotic cells.

The Cell
What Are Cells?
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This is a colored transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of an Escherichia coli bacterium in
the early stages of binary fission, the process by which the bacterium divides. Credit:
CNRI/Getty Images

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byRegina Bailey
Updated January 27, 2019

What Are Cells?

Life is both wonderful and majestic. Yet for all of its majesty, all organisms are
composed of the fundamental unit of life, the cell. The cell is the simplest unit of matter
that is alive. From the unicellular bacteria to multicellular animals, the cell is one of
the basic organizational principles of biology. Let's look at some of the components of
this basic organizer of living organisms.

Eukaryotic Cells and Prokaryotic Cells

There are two primary types of cells: eukaryotic cells and prokaryotic cells. Eukaryotic
cells are called so because they have a true nucleus. The nucleus, which houses DNA, is
contained within a membrane and separated from other cellular structures. Prokaryotic
cells, however, have no true nucleus. DNA in a prokaryotic cell is not separated from the
rest of the cell but coiled up in a region called the nucleoid.


As organized in the Three Domain System, prokaryotes include archaeans and bacteria.
Eukaryotes include animals, plants, fungi and protists (ex. algae). Typically, eukaryotic
cells are more complex and much larger than prokaryotic cells. On average, prokaryotic
cells are about 10 times smaller in diameter than eukaryotic cells.

Cell Reproduction

Eukaryotes grow and reproduce through a process called mitosis. In organisms that
also reproduce sexually, the reproductive cells are produced by a type of cell division
called meiosis.

Most prokaryotes reproduce asexually and some through a process called binary fission.
During binary fission, the single DNA molecule replicates and the original cell is divided
into two identical daughter cells. Some eukaryotic organisms also reproduce asexually
through processes such as budding, regeneration, and parthenogenesis.

Cellular Respiration

Both eukaryotic and prokaryotic organisms get the energy they need to grow and
maintain normal cellular function through cellular respiration. Cellular respiration has
three main stages: glycolysis, the citric acid cycle, and electron transport. In eukaryotes,
most cellular respiration reactions take place within the mitochondria. In prokaryotes,
they occur in the cytoplasm and/or within the cell membrane.

Comparing Eukaryotic and Prokaryotic Cells

There are also many distinctions between eukaryotic and prokaryotic cell structures.
The following table compares the cell organelles and structures found in a typical
prokaryotic cell to those found in a typical animal eukaryotic cell.

Eukaryotic and Prokaryotic Cell Structures

Cell Structure Prokaryotic Cell Typical Animal Eukaryotic Cell
Cell Membrane Yes Yes
Cell Wall Yes No
Centrioles No Yes
Chromosomes One long DNAstrand Many
Cilia or Flagella Yes, simple Yes, complex
Endoplasmic Reticulum No Yes (some exceptions)
Golgi Complex No Yes
Lysosomes No Common
Mitochondria No Yes
Nucleus No Yes
Peroxisomes No Common
Ribosomes Yes Yes

What Is an Organelle?
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Animal Cell Organelles. Credit: Science Photo Library - ANDRZEJ WOJCICKI/Brand X

Pictures/Getty Images

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byRegina Bailey
Updated June 28, 2018

An organelle is a tiny cellular structure that performs specific functions within a cell.
Organelles are embedded within the cytoplasm of eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells. In
the more complex eukaryotic cells, organelles are often enclosed by their
own membrane. Analogous to the body's internal organs, organelles are specialized and
perform valuable functions necessary for normal cellular operation. Organelles have a
wide range of responsibilities that include everything from generating energy for a cell
to controlling the cell's growth and reproduction.

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Eukaryotic Organelles

Eukaryotic cells are cells with a nucleus. The nucleus is an organelle that is surrounded
by a double membrane called the nuclear envelope. The nuclear envelope separates the
contents of the nucleus from the rest of the cell. Eukaryotic cells also have a cell
membrane (plasma membrane), cytoplasm, cytoskeleton, and various cellular
organelles. Animals, plants, fungi, and protists are examples of eukaryotic organisms.
Animal and plant cells contain many of the same kinds or organelles. There are also
certain organelles found in plant cells that are not found in animal cells and vice versa.
Examples of organelles found in plant cells and animal cells include:

 Nucleus - a membrane bound structure that contains the cell's hereditary (DNA)
information and controls the cell's growth and reproduction. It is commonly the
most prominent organelle in the cell.
 Mitochondria - as the cell's power producers, mitochondria convert energy into
forms that are usable by the cell. They are the sites of cellular respiration which
ultimately generates fuel for the cell's activities. Mitochondria are also involved in
other cell processes such as cell division and growth, as well as cell death.
 Endoplasmic Reticulum - extensive network of membranes composed of both
regions with ribosomes (rough ER) and regions without ribosomes (smooth ER).
This organelle manufactures membranes,
secretory proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and hormones.
 Golgi complex - also called the Golgi apparatus, this structure is responsible for
manufacturing, warehousing, and shipping certain cellular products, particularly
those from the endoplasmic reticulum (ER).
 Ribosomes - these organelles consist of RNA and proteins and are responsible for
protein production. Ribosomes are found suspended in the cytosol or bound to
the endoplasmic reticulum.
 Lysosomes - these membranous sacs of enzymes recycle the cell's organic
material by digesting cellular macromolecules, such as nucleic acids,
polysaccharides, fats, and proteins.
 Peroxisomes - Like lysosomes, peroxisomes are bound by a membrane and
contain enzymes. Peroxisomes help to detoxify alcohol, form bile acid, and break
down fats.
 Vacuole - these fluid-filled, enclosed structures are found most commonly in
plant cells and fungi. Vacuoles are responsible for a wide variety of important
functions in a cell including nutrient storage, detoxification, and waste
 Chloroplast - this chlorophyll containing plastid is found in plant cells, but not
animal cells. Chloroplasts absorb the sun's light energy for photosynthesis.
 Cell Wall - this rigid outer wall is positioned next to the cell membrane in most
plant cells. Not found in animal cells, the cell wall helps to provide support and
protection for the cell.
 Centrioles - these cylindrical structures are found in animal cells, but not plant
cells. Centrioles help to organize the assembly of microtubules during cell
 Cilia and Flagella - cilia and flagella are protrusions from some cells that aid in
cellular locomotion. They are formed from specialized groupings
of microtubulescalled basal bodies.

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Prokaryotic Cells
Prokaryotic cells have a structure that is less complex than eukaryotic cells. They do not
have a nucleus or region where the DNA is bound by a membrane. Prokaryotic DNA is
coiled up in a region of the cytoplasm called the nucleoid. Like eukaryotic cells,
prokaryotic cells contain a plasma membrane, cell wall, and cytoplasm. Unlike
eukaryotic cells, prokaryotic cells do not contain membrane-bound organelles. However,
they do contain some non-membranous organelles such as ribosomes, flagella, and
plasmids (circular DNA structures that are not involved in reproduction). Examples of
prokaryotic cells include bacteria and archaeans.

Intro to eukaryotic cells

Overview of eukaryotic cells and how they differ from prokaryotic cells (nucleus, organelles, and
linear chromosomes).
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What would it be like to live in a one-room cabin? Well, things would
probably be pretty simple. You would eat, sleep, work, and relax in a single
room—which might be a bit cramped, but would certainly make cleaning the
house a snap!

Prokaryotic cells, the simple cells of organisms like bacteria, are sometimes
compared to one-room cabins: they don't have internal membranes, so they’re
like a single room with no walls to carve it up^11. If we extend this analogy
to eukaryotic cells, the more complex cells that make up plants, fungi, and
animals, we'll find that they're a definite step upward in the real estate

Just as a large family home is split into many rooms with different purposes
(bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen, living room, etc.), so eukaryotic cells contain
a variety of different compartments with specialized functions, neatly
separated from one another by layers of membrane. This organization lets
each compartment maintain its own conditions, the ones it needs to carry out
its job.
For instance, compartments called lysosomes, which act as recycling centers
for the cell, must maintain an acidic pH in order to dispose of cellular waste.
Similarly, structures called peroxisomes carry out chemical reactions called
oxidation reactions and produce hydrogen peroxide, both of which would
damage the cell if they weren’t safely stored away in their own “room.”

The ability to maintain different environments inside a single cell allows

eukaryotic cells to carry out complex metabolic reactions that prokaryotes
cannot. In fact, it’s a big part of the reason why eukaryotic cells can grow to
be many times larger than prokaryotic ones.

Prokaryotic vs. eukaryotic cells

What are the key features of eukaryotic cells? Unlike prokaryotic
cells, eukaryotic cells have:

1. A membrane-bound nucleus, a central cavity surrounded by membrane that

houses the cell’s genetic material.

2. A number of membrane-bound organelles, compartments with specialized

functions that float in the cytosol. (Organelle means “little organ,” and this
name reflects that the organelles, like the organs of our body, have unique
functions as part of a larger system.)

3. Multiple linear chromosomes, as opposed to the single circular chromosome

of a prokaryote.

Eukaryotic cells are much more complicated than those of prokaryotes. They
are packed with a fascinating array of subcellular structures that play
important roles in energy balance, metabolism, and gene expression.
In the articles and videos that follow, we’ll take a tour through eukaryotic
plant and animal cells, exploring the unique structures they contain and the
role that each structure plays in the life of the cell.

Already know what part of the cell you want to visit? Use the list below to
jump to your region of interest:

 Plasma membrane and cytoplasm

 Nucleus and ribosomes
 Endomembrane system
 Mitochondria, chloroplasts, and peroxisomes
 Cytoskeleton
 Extracellular matrix and cell wall
 Cell junctions
Diagram of a typical animal cell:
Diagram of an animal cell with components lettered.
Image modified from OpenStax Biology.

Diagram of a typical plant cell:

Diagram of a plant cell with components labeled.
Image modified from OpenStax Biology.

Prokaryotes and eukaryotes review

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Key terms
Term Meaning
Endosymbiotic Theory proposing that eukaryotic cells formed from a
theory symbiotic relationship among prokaryotic cells

How do prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells differ?

Prokaryotes Eukaryotes
DNA is circular, usually
Genetic free-floating in
information cytoplasm DNA is linear, found in nucleus

Has nucleus and membrane-

No nucleus or bound organelles (ie:
membrane-bound mitochondria, chloroplasts,
Organelles organelles Golgi body, ER)

Small (1-5
Size micrometers) Larger (10-100 micrometers)

Organisms Bacteria/archaea Animals, plants, fungi, protists

Can be unicellular or
Cell structure Always unicellular multicellular

What is the endosymbiotic theory?

One theory that may explain how eukaryotes became so complex is
the endosymbiotic theory.

This theory proposes that organelles like mitochondria and chloroplasts were
once free-living prokaryotic cells that began to live within a larger host cell.
Over a long time, the prokaryotes and their hosts evolved together until one
could not function without the other.

Common mistakes and misconceptions

 Eukaryotes can be unicellular. Many people think that eukaryotes are all
multicellular, but this is not the case. While prokaryotes are always
unicellular organisms, eukaryotes can be either unicellular or multicellular.
For example, most protists are single-celled eukaryotes!

 Even though prokaryotes do not have a nucleus, they DO contain genetic

information. Prokaryotes generally have single circular chromosomes where
they store their genetic information.

Structure of the plasma membrane

The fluid mosaic model of the plasma membrane. Protein, lipid, and carbohydrate components of the
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Each cell of your body is encased in a tiny bubble of membrane. This
membrane has about the consistency of...salad oil^11. The first time I read
that factoid, I didn't find it very reassuring! Salad oil seems like an awfully
fragile boundary to place between a cell and the rest of the world. Luckily,
the plasma membrane turns out to be very well-suited to its job, salad oil
texture and all.

What exactly is its job? The plasma membrane not only defines the borders
of the cell, but also allows the cell to interact with its environment in a
controlled way. Cells must be able to exclude, take in, and excrete various
substances, all in specific amounts. In addition, they must able to
communicate with other cells, identifying themselves and sharing

To perform these roles, the plasma membrane needs lipids, which make a
semi-permeable barrier between the cell and its environment. It also needs
proteins, which are involved in cross-membrane transport and cell
communication, and carbohydrates (sugars and sugar chains), which decorate
both the proteins and lipids and help cells recognize each other.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at the different components of the plasma
membrane, examining their roles, their diversity, and how they work together
to make a flexible, sensitive, and secure boundary around the cell.

Fluid mosaic model

The currently accepted model for the structure of the plasma membrane,
called the fluid mosaic model, was first proposed in 1972. This model has
evolved over time, but it still provides a good basic description of the
structure and behavior of membranes in many cells.

According to the fluid mosaic model, the plasma membrane is a mosaic of

components—primarily, phospholipids, cholesterol, and proteins—that move
freely and fluidly in the plane of the membrane. In other words, a diagram of
the membrane (like the one below) is just a snapshot of a dynamic process in
which phospholipids and proteins are continually sliding past one another.

Interestingly enough, this fluidity means that if you insert a very fine needle
into a cell, the membrane will simply part to flow around the needle; once the
needle is removed, the membrane will flow back together seamlessly.
Image of the plasma membrane, showing the phospholipid bilayer with
peripheral and integral membrane proteins, glycoproteins (proteins with a
carbohydrate attached), glycolipids (lipids with a carbohydrate attached), and
cholesterol molecules.
Image modified from OpenStax Biology.

The principal components of the plasma membrane are lipids (phospholipids

and cholesterol), proteins, and carbohydrate groups that are attached to some
of the lipids and proteins.

 A phospholipid is a lipid made of glycerol, two fatty acid tails, and a

phosphate-linked head group. Biological membranes usually involve two
layers of phospholipids with their tails pointing inward, an arrangement
called a phospholipid bilayer.
 Cholesterol, another lipid composed of four fused carbon rings, is found
alongside phospholipids in the core of the membrane.

 Membrane proteins may extend partway into the plasma membrane, cross the
membrane entirely, or be loosely attached to its inside or outside face.

 Carbohydrate groups are present only on the outer surface of the plasma
membrane and are attached to proteins, forming glycoproteins, or lipids,
forming glycolipids.

The proportions of proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates in the plasma

membrane vary between different types of cells. For a typical human cell,
however, proteins account for about 50 percent of the composition by mass,
lipids (of all types) account for about 40 percent, and the remaining 10
percent comes from carbohydrates.

Phospholipids, arranged in a bilayer, make up the basic fabric of the plasma
membrane. They are well-suited for this role because they are amphipathic,
meaning that they have both hydrophilic and hydrophobic regions.
Chemical structure of a phospholipid, showing the hydrophilic head and
hydrophobic tails.
Image credit: OpenStax Biology.

The hydrophilic, or “water-loving,” portion of a phospholipid is its head,

which contains a negatively charged phosphate group as well as an additional
small group (of varying identity, “R” in the diagram at left), which may also
or be charged or polar. The hydrophilic heads of phospholipids in a
membrane bilayer face outward, contacting the aqueous (watery) fluid both
inside and outside the cell. Since water is a polar molecule, it readily forms
electrostatic (charge-based) interactions with the phospholipid heads.

The hydrophobic, or “water-fearing,” part of a phospholipid consists of its

long, nonpolar fatty acid tails. The fatty acid tails can easily interact with
other nonpolar molecules, but they interact poorly with water. Because of
this, it’s more energetically favorable for the phospholipids to tuck their fatty
acid tails away in the interior of the membrane, where they are shielded from
the surrounding water. The phospholipid bilayer formed by these interactions
makes a good barrier between the interior and exterior of the cell, because
water and other polar or charged substances cannot easily cross the
hydrophobic core of the membrane.
[Can water cross the plasma membrane at all?]
Image of a micelle and a liposome.
Image credit: modification of work by OpenStax Biology, originally by Mariana Ruiz Villareal.

Thanks to their amphipathic nature, phospholipids aren’t just well-suited to

form a membrane bilayer. Instead, this is something they’ll do spontaneously
under the right conditions! In water or aqueous solution, phospholipids tend
to arrange themselves with their hydrophobic tails facing each other and their
hydrophilic heads facing out. If the phospholipids have small tails, they may
form a micelle (a small, single-layered sphere), while if they have bulkier
tails, they may form a liposome (a hollow droplet of bilayer membrane)^22.

Proteins are the second major component of plasma membranes. There are
two main categories of membrane proteins: integral and peripheral.
Image of a single-pass transmembrane protein with a single membrane-
spanning alpha helix and a three-pass transmembrane protein with three
membrane-spanning alpha helices.
Image credit: image modified from OpenStax Biology, originally by Foobar/Wikimedia Commons.

Integral membrane proteins are, as their name suggests, integrated into the
membrane: they have at least one hydrophobic region that anchors them to
the hydrophobic core of the phospholipid bilayer. Some stick only partway
into the membrane, while others stretch from one side of the membrane to the
other and are exposed on either side^11. Proteins that extend all the way
across the membrane are called transmembrane proteins.

The portions of an integral membrane protein found inside the membrane are
hydrophobic, while those that are exposed to the cytoplasm or extracellular
fluid tend to be hydrophilic. Transmembrane proteins may cross the
membrane just once, or may have as many as twelve different membrane-
spanning sections. A typical membrane-spanning segment consists of 20-25
hydrophobic amino acids arranged in an alpha helix, although not all
transmembrane proteins fit this model. Some integral membrane proteins
form a channel that allows ions or other small molecules to pass, as shown

_Image credit: "Components and structure: Figure 1," by OpenStax College, Biology (CC BY 3.0)._
Peripheral membrane proteins are found on the outside and inside surfaces
of membranes, attached either to integral proteins or to phospholipids. Unlike
integral membrane proteins, peripheral membrane proteins do not stick into
the hydrophobic core of the membrane, and they tend to be more loosely

Carbohydrates are the third major component of plasma membranes. In
general, they are found on the outside surface of cells and are bound either to
proteins (forming glycoproteins) or to lipids (forming glycolipids). These
carbohydrate chains may consist of 2-60 monosaccharide units and can be
either straight or branched.

Along with membrane proteins, these carbohydrates form distinctive cellular

markers, sort of like molecular ID badges, that allow cells to recognize each
other. These markers are very important in the immune system, allowing
immune cells to differentiate between body cells, which they shouldn’t
attack, and foreign cells or tissues, which they should.

Membrane fluidity
The structure of the fatty acid tails of the phospholipids is important in
determining the properties of the membrane, and in particular, how fluid it is.

Saturated fatty acids have no double bonds (are saturated with hydrogens),
so they are relatively straight. Unsaturated fatty acids, on the other hand,
contain one or more double bonds, often resulting in a bend or kink. (You can
see an example of a bent, unsaturated tail in the diagram of phospholipid
structure that appears earlier in this article.) The saturated and unsaturated
fatty acid tails of phospholipids behave differently as temperature drops:

 At cooler temperatures, the straight tails of saturated fatty acids can pack
tightly together, making a dense and fairly rigid membrane.

 Phospholipids with unsaturated fatty acid tails cannot pack together as tightly
because of the bent structure of the tails. Because of this, a membrane
containing unsaturated phospholipids will stay fluid at lower temperatures
than a membrane made of saturated ones.

Most cell membranes contain a mixture of phospholipids, some with two

saturated (straight) tails and others with one saturated and one unsaturated
(bent) tail. Many organisms—fish are one example—can adjust
physiologically to cold environments by changing the proportion of
unsaturated fatty acids in their membranes. For more information about
saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, see the article on lipids.

In addition to phospholipids, animals have an additional membrane

component that helps to maintain fluidity. Cholesterol, another type of lipid
that is embedded among the phospholipids of the membrane, helps to
minimize the effects of temperature on fluidity.
Image credit: "Cholesterol," by BorisTM (public domain).

At low temperatures, cholesterol increases fluidity by keeping phospholipids

from packing tightly together, while at high temperatures, it actually reduces
fluidity^{3,4}3,4. In this way, cholesterol expands the range of temperatures
at which a membrane maintains a functional, healthy fluidity.

The components of the plasma membrane

Component Location
Phospholipids Main fabric of the membrane

Tucked between the hydrophobic tails of the membrane

Cholesterol phospholipids

Embedded in the phospholipid bilayer; may or may not

Integral proteins extend through both layers

Peripheral On the inner or outer surface of the phospholipid

proteins bilayer, but not embedded in its hydrophobic core
Component Location
Attached to proteins or lipids on the extracellular side of
Carbohydrates the membrane (forming glycoproteins and glycolipids)
Table modified from OpenStax Biology.

The cell membrane review

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Key terms
Term Meaning
Specialized structure that surrounds the cell and its
internal environment; controls movement of
Cell membrane substances into/out of cell

Hydrophobic Molecule that repels water (“water-fearing”)

Hydrophilic Molecule that is attracted to water (“water-loving”)

Molecule that contains both a hydrophobic and a

Amphipathic hydrophilic end
Amphipathic lipid made of glycerol, two fatty acid
Phospholipid tails, and a phosphate group

Phospholipid A biological membrane involving two layers of

bilayer phospholipids with their tails pointing inward

Semipermeable Membrane that allows certain substances to pass

membrane through
Structure and function of the cell membrane
The cell membrane is semipermeable (or selectively permeable). It is made of
a phospholipid bilayer, along with other various lipids, proteins, and

Image of the plasma membrane, showing the phospholipid bilayer with

peripheral and integral membrane proteins, glycoproteins (proteins with a
carbohydrate attached), glycolipids (lipids with a carbohydrate attached), and
cholesterol molecules.
Image modified from OpenStax Biology.

Each phospholipid is amphipathic, with two hydrophobic tails and a

hydrophilic head. The hydrophobic tails face inward towards one another,
and the hydrophilic heads face outwards.
Chemical structure of a phospholipid, showing the hydrophilic head and
hydrophobic tails.
Image credit: OpenStax Biology.

The unique structure of the cell membrane allows small substances (like
oxygen or carbon dioxide) to easily pass through.

Common mistakes and misconceptions

 Hydrophobic tails face inward and hydrophilic heads face outward. If
you get these two ends mixed up, think of the root word “phobia” which
means “fear.” Hydrophobic tails fear the water, so they will always try to be
as far as possible from the water solutions in and out of the cell.

 The cell membrane contains a phospholipid bilayer, but the terms are
not interchangeable. Part of the cell membrane is a phospholipid bilayer,
made of two layers of phospholipid molecules. However, the cell membrane
also contains other macromolecules like membrane proteins, and
carbohydrates. Therefore, we can say that the cell membrane is made of a
phospholipid bilayer, but it is not only made of it.

Cellular organelles and structure

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What is a cell
Right now your body is doing a million things at once. It’s sending electrical
impulses, pumping blood, filtering urine, digesting food, making protein,
storing fat, and that’s just the stuff you’re not thinking about! You can do all
this because you are made of cells — tiny units of life that are like
specialized factories, full of machinery designed to accomplish the business
of life. Cells make up every living thing, from blue whales to the
archaebacteria that live inside volcanos. Just like the organisms they make
up, cells can come in all shapes and sizes. Nerve cells in giant squids can
reach up to 12m [39 ft] in length, while human eggs (the largest human cells)
are about 0.1mm across. Plant cells have protective walls made of cellulose
(which also makes up the strings in celery that make it so hard to eat) while
fungal cell walls are made from the same stuff as lobster shells. However,
despite this vast range in size, shape, and function, all these little factories
have the same basic machinery.

There are two main types of cells, prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Prokaryotes
are cells that do not have membrane bound nuclei, whereas eukaryotes do.
The rest of our discussion will strictly be on eukaryotes. Think about what a
factory needs in order to function effectively. At its most basic, a factory
needs a building, a product, and a way to make that product. All cells have
membranes (the building), DNA (the various blueprints), and ribosomes (the
production line), and so are able to make proteins (the product - let’s say
we’re making toys). This article will focus on eukaryotes, since they are the
cell type that contains organelles.

A diagram representing the cell as a factory. The cell membrane is

represented as the "factory walls." The nucleus of a cell is represented as the
"blueprint room." The ribosome is represented as the "production room" and
the final protein made by the ribosome is represented as the "product."

What’s found inside a cell

An organelle (think of it as a cell’s internal organ) is a membrane bound
structure found within a cell. Just like cells have membranes to hold
everything in, these mini-organs are also bound in a double layer of
phospholipids to insulate their little compartments within the larger cells.
You can think of organelles as smaller rooms within the factory, with
specialized conditions to help these rooms carry out their specific task (like a
break room stocked with goodies or a research room with cool gadgets and a
special air filter). These organelles are found in the cytoplasm, a viscous
liquid found within the cell membrane that houses the organelles and is the
location of most of the action happening in a cell. Below is a table of the
organelles found in the basic human cell, which we’ll be using as our
template for this discussion.

Organelle Function Factory part

Room where the
Nucleus DNA Storage blueprints are kept

Mitochondrion Energy production Powerplant

Smooth Accessory production -

Endoplasmic Lipid production; makes decorations for
Reticulum (SER) Detoxification the toy, etc.

Protein production; in
Rough Endoplasmic particular for export out Primary production
Reticulum (RER) of the cell line - makes the toys

Protein modification and

Golgi apparatus export Shipping department

Lipid Destruction;
contains oxidative Security and waste
Peroxisome enzymes removal

Lysosome Protein destruction Recycling and security

Diagram of a cell highlighting the membrane bound organelles mentioned in
the table above.

Our DNA has the blueprints for every protein in our body, all packaged into a
neat double helix. The processes to transform DNA into proteins are known
as transcription and translation, and happen in different compartments within
the cell. The first step, transcription, happens in the nucleus, which holds our
DNA. A membrane called the nuclear envelope surrounds the nucleus, and its
job is to create a room within the cell to both protect the genetic information
and to house all the molecules that are involved in processing and protecting
that info. This membrane is actually a set of two lipid bilayers, so there are
four sheets of lipids separating the inside of the nucleus from the cytoplasm.
The space between the two bilayers is known as the perinuclear space.

Though part of the function of the nucleus is to separate the DNA from the
rest of the cell, molecules must still be able to move in and out (e.g., RNA).
Proteins channels known as nuclear pores form holes in the nuclear envelope.
The nucleus itself is filled with liquid (called nucleoplasm) and is similar in
structure and function to cytoplasm. It is here within the nucleoplasm where
chromosomes (tightly packed strands of DNA containing all our blueprints)
are found.

Cartoon showing a close up the nucleus and highlighting structures specific to

the nucleus.

A nucleus has interesting implications for how a cell responds to its

environment. Thanks to the added protection of the nuclear envelope, the
DNA is a little bit more secure from enzymes, pathogens, and potentially
harmful products of fat and protein metabolism. Since this is the only
permanent copy of the instructions the cell has, it is very important to keep
the DNA in good condition. If the DNA was not sequestered away, it would
be vulnerable to damage by the aforementioned dangers, which would then
lead to defective protein production. Imagine a giant hole or coffee stain in
the blueprint for your toy - all of a sudden you don’t have either enough or
the right information to make a critical piece of the toy.

The nuclear envelope also keeps molecules responsible for DNA

transcription and repair close to the DNA itself - otherwise those molecules
would diffuse across the entire cell and it would take a lot more work and
luck to get anything done! While transcription (making a complementary
strand of RNA from DNA) is completed within the nucleus, translation
(making protein from RNA instructions) takes place in the cytoplasm. If there
was no barrier between the transcription and translation machineries, it’s
possible that poorly-made or unfinished RNA would get turned into poorly
made and potentially dangerous proteins. Before an RNA can exit the nucleus
to be translated, it must get special modifications, in the form of a cap and tail
at either end of the molecule, that act as a stamp of approval to let the cell
know this piece of RNA is complete and properly made.

Cartoon showing mRNA preparing to leave the nucleus and enter the

Within the nucleus is a small subspace known as the nucleolus. It
is not bound by a membrane, so it is not an organelle. This space forms near
the part of DNA with instructions for making ribosomes, the molecules
responsible for making proteins. Ribosomes are assembled in the nucleolus,
and exit the nucleus with nuclear pores. In our analogy, the robots making
our product are made in a special corner of the blueprint room, before being
released to the factory.

A diagram representing the cell as a factory. The cell membrane is

represented as the "factory walls." The nucleus of a cell is represented as the
"blueprint room" while the nucleolus is represented as a "special product
corner" within the blueprint room. The ribosome is represented as the
"production room" and the final protein made by the ribosome is represented
as the "product."

Endoplasmic Reticulum
Endoplasmic means inside (endo) the cytoplasm (plasm). Reticulum comes
from the Latin word for net. Basically, an endoplasmic reticulum is a plasma
membrane found inside the cell that folds in on itself to create an internal
space known as the lumen. This lumen is actually continuous with the
perinuclear space, so we know the endoplasmic reticulum is attached to the
nuclear envelope. There are actually two different endoplasmic reticuli in a
cell: the smooth endoplasmic reticulum and the rough endoplasmic reticulum.
The rough endoplasmic reticulum is the site of protein production (where we
make our major product - the toy) while the smooth endoplasmic reticulum is
where lipids (fats) are made (accessories for the toy, but not the central
product of the factory).

Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum

The rough endoplasmic reticulum is so-called because its surface is studded
with ribosomes, the molecules in charge of protein production. When a
ribosome finds a specific RNA segment, that segment may tell the ribosome
to travel to the rough endoplasmic reticulum and embed itself. The protein
created from this segment will find itself inside the lumen of the rough
endoplasmic reticulum, where it folds and is tagged with a (usually
carbohydrate) molecule in a process known as glycosylation that marks the
protein for transport to the Golgi apparatus. The rough endoplasmic reticulum
is continuous with the nuclear envelope, and looks like a series of canals near
the nucleus. Proteins made in the rough endoplasmic reticulum as destined to
either be a part of a membrane, or to be secreted from the cell membrane out
of the cell. Without an rough endoplasmic reticulum, it would be a lot harder
to distinguish between proteins that should leave the cell, and proteins that
should remain. Thus, the rough endoplasmic reticulum helps cells specialize
and allows for greater complexity in the organism.

Smooth Endoplasmic Reticulum

The smooth endoplasmic reticulum makes lipids and steroids, instead of
being involved in protein synthesis. These are fat-based molecules that are
important in energy storage, membrane structure, and communication
(steroids can act as hormones). The smooth endoplasmic reticulum is also
responsible for detoxifying the cell. It is more tubular than the rough
endoplasmic reticulum, and is not necessarily continuous with the nuclear
envelope. Every cell has a smooth endoplasmic reticulum, but the amount
will vary with cell function. For example, the liver, which is responsible for
most of the body’s detoxification, has a larger amount of smooth
endoplasmic reticulum.
A diagram showing the structure of the rough endoplasmic reticulum, the
golgi apparatus, and the smooth endoplasmic reticulum.
Figure 6. The rough endoplasmic reticulum (3) is continuous with the nucleus (1) and makes proteins to be
processed by the Golgi apparatus (8), which it is not continuous with. The smoother endoplasmic reticulum is
more tubular than the rough, and is not studded with ribosomes.
Golgi apparatus (aka Golgi body aka Golgi)
We mentioned the Golgi apparatus earlier when we discussed the production
of proteins in the rough endoplasmic reticulum. If the smooth and rough
endoplasmic reticula are how we make our product, the Golgi is the
mailroom that sends our product to customers . It is responsible for packing
proteins from the rough endoplasmic reticulum into membrane-bound
vesicles (tiny compartments of lipid bilayer that store molecules) which then
translocate to the cell membrane. At the cell membrane, the vesicles can fuse
with the larger lipid bilayer, causing the vesicle contents to either become
part of the cell membrane or be released to the outside.

Different molecules actually have different fates upon entering the Golgi.
This determination is done by tagging the proteins with special sugar
molecules that act as a shipping label for the protein. The shipping
department identifies the molecule and sets it on one of 4 paths:

1. Cytosol: the proteins that enter the Golgi by mistake are sent back into the
cytosol (imagine the barcode scanning wrong and the item being returned).
2. Cell membrane: proteins destined for the cell membrane are processed
continuously. Once the vesicle is made, it moves to the cell membrane and
fuses with it. Molecules in this pathway are often protein channels which
allow molecules into or out of the cell, or cell identifiers which project into
the extracellular space and act like a name tag for the cell.
3. Secretion: some proteins are meant to be secreted from the cell to act on other
parts of the body. Before these vesicles can fuse with the cell membrane, they
must accumulate in number, and require a special chemical signal to be
released. This way shipments only go out if they’re worth the cost of sending
them (you generally wouldn’t ship just one toy and expect to profit).
4. Lysosome: The final destination for proteins coming through the Golgi is the
lysosome. Vesicles sent to this acidic organelle contain enzymes that will
hydrolyze the lysosome’s content.

Cartoon representing the golgi apparatus sorting proteins into one of the four
paths described above: the cytosol, the cell membrane, secretion, or

The lysosome is the cell’s recycling center. These organelles are spheres full
of enzymes ready to hydrolyze (chop up the chemical bonds of) whatever
substance crosses the membrane, so the cell can reuse the raw material. These
disposal enzymes only function properly in environments with a pH of 5, two
orders of magnitude more acidic than the cell’s internal pH of 7. Lysosomal
proteins only being active in an acidic environment acts as safety mechanism
for the rest of the cell - if the lysosome were to somehow leak or burst, the
degradative enzymes would inactivate before they chopped up proteins the
cell still needed.

Cartoon showing a lysosome breaking down a protein.

Like the lysosome, the peroxisome is a spherical organelle responsible for
destroying its contents. Unlike the lysosome, which mostly degrades proteins,
the peroxisome is the site of fatty acid breakdown. It also protects the cell
from reactive oxygen species (ROS) molecules which could seriously
damage the cell. ROSs are molecules like oxygen ions or peroxides that are
created as a byproduct of normal cellular metabolism, but also by radiation,
tobacco, and drugs. They cause what is known as oxidative stress in the cell
by reacting with and damaging DNA and lipid-based molecules like cell
membranes. These ROSs are the reason we need antioxidants in our diet.

Just like a factory can’t run without electricity, a cell can’t run without
energy. ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is the energy currency of the cell, and
is produced in a process known as cellular respiration. Though the process
begins in the cytoplasm, the bulk of the energy produced comes from later
steps that take place in the mitochondria.

Like we saw with the nuclear envelope, there are actually two lipid bilayers
that separate the mitochondrial contents from the cytoplasm. We refer to
them as the inner and outer mitochondrial membranes. If we cross both
membranes we end up in the matrix, where pyruvate is sent after it is created
from the breakdown of glucose (this is step 1 of cellular respiration, known
as glycolysis).The space between the two membranes is called the
intermembrane space, and it has a low pH (is acidic) because the electron
transport chain embedded in the inner membrane pumps protons (H+) into it.
Energy to make ATP comes from protons moving back into the matrix down
their gradient from the intermembrane space.

A cartoon showing the various parts of the mitochondria.

Mitochondria are also somewhat unique in that they are self-replicating and
have their own DNA, almost as if they were a completely separate cell. The
prevailing theory, known as the endosymbiotic theory, is that eukaryotes
were first formed by large prokaryotic cells engulfing smaller cells that
looked a lot like mitochondria (and chloroplasts, more on them later). Instead
of being digested, the engulfed cells remained intact and the arrangement
turned out to be advantageous to both cells, which created a symbiotic

So far we’ve discussed organelles, the membrane-bound structures within a

cell that have some sort of specialized function. Now let’s take a moment to
talk about the scaffolding that’s holding all of this in place - the walls and
beams of our factory.

Within the cytoplasm there is network of protein fibers known as the
cytoskeleton. This structure is responsible for both cell movement and
stability. The major components of the cytoskeleton are microtubules,
intermediate filaments, and microfilaments.

Microtubules are small tubes made from the protein tubulin. These tubules
are found in cilia and flagella, structures involved in cell movement. They
also help provide pathways for secretory vesicles to move through the cell,
and are even involved in cell division as they are a part of the mitotic spindle,
which pulls homologous chromosomes apart.
Intermediate Filaments
Smaller than the microtubules, but larger than the microfilaments, the
intermediate filaments are made of a variety of proteins such as keratin
and/or neurofilament. They are very stable, and help provide structure to the
nuclear envelope and anchor organelles.

Microfilaments are the thinnest part of the cytoskeleton, and are made of
actin [a highly-conserved protein that is actually the most abundant protein in
most eukaryotic cells]. Actin is both flexible and strong, making it a useful
protein in cell movement. In the heart, contraction is mediated through an
actin-myosin system.

Images showing microtubules, microfilaments, and intermediate fibers.

Figure 10. Elements of the cytoskeleton include microtubules (a), microfilaments (b), and intermediate fibers
(c). These structures work together in cell structure and motility.
Plants and Platelets
So far we’ve covered basic organelles found in a eukaryotic cell. However,
not every cell has each of these organelles, and some cells have organelles we
haven’t discussed. For example, plant cells have chloroplasts, organelles that
resemble mitochondria and are responsible for turning sunlight into useful
energy for the cell (this is like factories that are powered by energy they
collect via solar panels). On the other hand, platelets, blood cells responsible
for clotting, have no nucleus and are in fact just fragments of cytoplasm
contained within a cell membrane.

Eukaryotes vs Bacteria vs Archaea

It is also important to keep in mind that organelles are found only in
eukaryotes, one of the three major cell divisions. The other two major
divisions, Bacteria and Archaea are known as prokaryotes, and have no
membrane bound organelles within.

Consider the Following:

 Some diseases can be traced back to organelle lack / malformation. For
example, inclusion-cell (I-cell) disease occurs due to a defect in the Golgi. In
order to mark enzymes that should be sent to lysosomes to help degrade
unwanted molecules, the Golgi has to bind them with a mannose 6-phosphate
tag, like a shipping label. However, in patients with I-cell disease, one of the
proteins that make this tag is mutated, and cannot do its job, like a broken
label machine. This means that proteins cannot be targeted to lysosomes.
These untagged proteins are the enzymes that are responsible for chopping up
other proteins. What happens is the inactivated enzymes end up being sent
outside the cell, while lysosomes clog up with undigested material. This
disease is congenital, and usually fatal before patients reach 7 years of age.
 An interesting idea is that mitochondria can be used to trace maternal
ancestry. Since mitochondria are self-replicating and have their own DNA,
they are not determined by the genes found in the nucleus. Instead, your
mitochondria have developed from the mitochondria present in the female
ovum (egg) that you developed from. Defects in mitochondrial DNA cause
hereditary diseases that pass only from mother to children.
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