September 2017


There is a pretty good interactive site here. The left panel gives you the basics of cells. We may use some of the other animations later. It is not required that you go to and use this site. But, you may find it helpful.
It will cover most of the reading.
  • All living things are made of cells

  • Why? Because I said so. Well, not because I said so. This is something called the “cell theory of life” and it builds into our definition of life the requirement for cells. There are a lot of ways in which this makes sense. However, there are many biological entities, most notably, viruses, which are not cellular and at least fulfill many of the other requirements for being alive.
  • Components of a cell

  • We looked at diagrams of “generic” animal and plant cells (by generic, I really mean cells that don’t look like any real cells).
  • I want you to know the names and general descriptions of the major organelles.

  1. Nucleus: large structure that houses the chromosomes (DNA). All RNA for the cell is made there, using the DNA as a template. It is encased by a double membrane. That is, two complete lipid bilayers. There are pores, or holes, for the transport of stuff out and in.
  2. Nucleolus: dense structure in the nucleus. It is the site of ribosome assembly. Ribosomes are then transported to the cytoplasm through the pores. Some scary numbers: a single mammalian cell may have 10,000,000 ribosomes and about 10,000,000,000 protein molecules (numbers form British Society for Cell Biology).
  3. Ribosomes are RNA/Protein machines that synthesized proteins. They show up as little black dots in electron micrographs either stuck to rough ER or free.
  4. Rough endoplasmic reticulum: Stack of membrane tubes near the nucleus. Site of synthesis of proteins that either end up in membranes or are secreted out of the cell (secreted merely means transported out of the cell). They are “rough” because they are dotted with ribosomes. Again, there are “Free” ribosomes that are not attached to the ER that synthesize proteins not bound for export or other membrane compartments.
  5. Smooth endoplasmic reticulum: Lacks ribosomes. This is the name given to stripy membrane tubes that have many varied functions depending on cells. In all cells, it is the site of phospholipid synthesis. In addition, in specialized cells, it is the site of steroid synthesis or used to manage calcium ion concentrations in cells that really use a lot of that. In liver cells, the break down of various toxins by enzymes takes place here. In the electric organs of fish, they stack up as battery cells using ion pumps to establish voltage.
  6. Golgi apparatus: Stacks of membranes that are between the rough ER and the plasma membrane. Proteins are transported from the ER to the Golgi in spheres of membrane called “vesicles.” In the Golgi, proteins are processed (usually meaning sugar molecules are added to specific amino acid residues).
  7. Plasma membrane or cell membrane: the lipid bilayer that keeps the outside out and the inside in. It also has many proteins in it, which may function, for example, as channels allowing transport of nutrients, or allow cells to grab other surfaces or detect the presence of various molecules: signals to change behavior, or example, or simply to hold on to other cells.
  8. Endocytic Vesicles: Spherical membranes that derive from the plasma membrane. Imagine them as pinching off from the membrane and taking in with the membrane any proteins in the area that pinches off. They are sites for “recycling” components of proteins. Viruses often exploit this as a way into cells.
  9. Lysosome: the next step for many of the endocytic vesicles. Highly acidic vesicles with digestive enzymes that fuse with the endocytic vesicles to allow the break-down of their contents. In fungi and plants, many scientists (and your book) say “lysosomes” don’t exist per se. Instead, larger membrane structures called “Lytic vacuoles” carry out the same process. What’s in a name?
  10. All together, numbers 3-9 (actually starting at the nuclear envelope) make up sort of one continuous super-organelle comprising a system of membranes. If I were to make radioactive lipids and put them in the cell, so I could detect the radiation where ever it was, I would find the “hot” lipids show up first in the smooth ER and nuclear envelope, and then later would be detected in each of the other places as time passed, in the order I presented.
  11. Mitochondria: these are the sites in which the high energy molecules from your food are broken down to low energy products (water and CO2) and the released free energy is captured in other high-energy molecules such as ATP, used to help run many reactions in your body. Mitochondria have their own chromosome (circular, like bacteria), their own ribosomes and their own tRNA. The function of all these components resembles that of bacteria. It is thought that mitochondria derived evolutionarily from bacterial cells that became part of a larger cell.
  12. Cytoskeleton: worst representation ever in the diagrams. We will look more at this later. It is a network of fibers made of the proteins actin (microfilaments), tubulin (microtubules) and Keratin (intermediate filaments…actually, there are many forms of each of these proteins). Microfilaments and microtubules are constantly changing. Microfilaments are usually involved when cells are migrating, are found more at the edges of the cell and at points where cells are attached to surfaces. Microtubules all grow out of centrioles or similar structures (generically known as “microtubule organizing centers” or MTOC). Again, somewhat semantically, higher plants don’t have well defined centrioles, but do have a “centrosome” as the MTOC. In a generic animal cell, the MTOC usually is the centriole, near the nucleus. However, the tail of sperm and many other things that stick out of cells and allow them to move (wag like the tail of sperm…called either “flagella” or “cilia” are made of microtubules and they each require their own set of centriole-like structures).
  13. Intermediate filaments are more permanent and are used to link cells together in very strong tissues (like skin). You only find them in cells that aren’t going any where anytime soon.

Unique to plants:

  1. Cell wall: cellulose-based structure that provides rigid “box” around cell.
  2. Vacuole (or central vacuole): large, fluid-filled region of the cell, surrounded by membrane. Used to maintain pressure in the cell, keeping the cell pressed out against the cell wall.
  3. Chloroplast: site of photosynthesis. Like the mitochondria, these have their own DNA, ribosomes and tRNA. They also appear to have been bacterial in origin…long ago.
  4. “Higher” plants (all the plants you know well…except maybe kelp), don’t have true centrioles. This is really a distinction without a difference. They have MTOCs, but lack the clear cylindrical tubes that we call centrioles. Kelp, which is not considered a higher plant, has a motile single-cell phase that swims using flagella. These have centrioles associated with them.

Below I’m including some real micrographs of what the components of cells look like. I can explain the technique in great detail later, if you like. But, for now, just know that we have tools that allow us to make any structure we want “fluoresce” or “glow” in a special microscope. These are not the best images. But you get the idea.

Cell Project

Here is the link to the rubric

All models of cells suck. Therefore, your model will also suck. You cannot accurately represent all that goes on in a cell, without swamping the representation with detail. But, there are specific things you can show, that will not suck.
Your model should be somewhat 3-dimensional and should show the basic features of a cell (Nucleus, plasma membrane, mitochondria, ER, maybe Golgi). This is the part of the model that will suck. Just the basics represented so that I know you know what they are.
Your goal—the part that shouldn't suck—is to choose cell type and a feature/function of that cell type and illustrate how that cell uses the same tools (proteins) found in pretty much every cell to do something interesting. That's the lesson I want you to take from this…cells repurpose the tools available to do things.
For now, you are just looking for a cell that does something interesting you would like to learn about. It does not have to be a human cell.
Maybe you want to learn about how cells in your eye detect light, or how cells on a shark detect electric fields created by prey. Maybe you want to learn about the cells that make and secrete insulin (if you do, then your representation of the ER and Golgi will have to be much better than other students’, because that’s a key feature of your cell). It is up to you. Make sure you fill out the form showing what you are planning to work on so that we don't have everyone doing the same thing.

Science Meme

  • I ran across this and thought you might find it amusing and maybe educational

Nucleic Acid

Wikipedia wikimedia commons image of a Short stretch of DNA bound by a protein called “Lambda Repressor.” DNA bases are shown in “stick model” form, sugar-phosphate backbone as red or blue pipes. Protein is shown in “ribbon” form, backbone only (no sidechains).
This is one of the ways that genes are turned “off” and “on.” In this case, it’s for a gene found in a virus that infects bacteria. But, some of the same principles will apply.

The Double Helix

This is a really beautiful structure. Unfortunately, the beauty lies in just how much it explained when it was first proposed, and is therefore, perhaps, hard for you to see. To me, it is astonishing. I’ll run down a few features.
Basic Structure (image also from Wikimedia Commons):
And a more detailed view:
  1. There are two strands. Each is defined by a polymer of sugar-phosphate moieties (yes, that’s a word, similar in meaning to “functional group”). Each subunit is linked from the number 3 carbon of one deoxyribose, to a phosphate, then to the number 5 carbon of the next deoxyribose. Instead of calling them 3 and 5, we call them 3’ (pronounced 3-prime) and 5’. The “prime” tells you that the number refers to the carbons in the sugar, as opposed to a carbon in the rings of the “base.”
  2. Thus, each strand has a chemical polarity. What I mean is that each strand has a 5’ end and a 3’ end, just as protein has an amino end and a carboxyl end. That, it turns out, is not a coincidence.
  3. The strands are aligned “anti-parallel.” The 5’ end of one strand of the double helix is aligned with the 3’ end of the other.
  4. The information is encoded by the “bases,” which protrude from the polymer backbone. This is really one of the key points: DNA is a code. The sequence of bases stands for something else. The main thing a DNA sequence stands for is the sequence of amino acids in a protein. A good first definition of “Gene” is: a stretch of DNA that encodes a protein, and its regulatory sequences.
  5. The information takes the form of hydrogen bonds. Adenine has a much greater ability to bond to Thymine than to Cytosine; Guanine bonds much more tightly cytosine. Thus, we have A-T pairs and G-C pairs. Each base “compliments” the one it pairs with in terms of hydrogen bonds it can make. We use the term “complimentarity” to describe this.
  6. Now, for some interesting stuff: DNA is redundant. I only have to see one strand to know what the sequence of the other is. Each stand has all the information needed to specify its opposite strand. When there is damage to one strand, the other strand tells you how to fix it. To replicate, each strand directs the synthesis of its mate.
  7. The information is in the hydrogen bonds...and it’s a code that specifies the primary sequence of proteins (among other things). Yes, I know I am, myself, being redundant. It’s important. The DNA and the peptide sequence are “co-linear.” The 5’ end of a gene corresponds to the amino end of the peptide chain. The 3’ end of the gene corresponds to the carboxyl end of the protein. Each group of three bases in a gene is a “codon,” specifying what amino acid goes in the corresponding place of the protein...Obviously, some fascinating machine and lots of regulation must go into that. I could go on and on...but I won’t just yet.


  • ATP
  • This is ATP (adenosine triphosphate). You’ve heard of it in terms of an “energy source” for your body. That’s true, as far as it goes. However, It is also one of the four bases that are the building blocks of RNA. The difference between this and dATP (“d” for “deoxy”) is the presence of that oxygen on the 2’ carbon. (Note, when I draw it, I usually have the protons removed from the phosphates. It’s an acid and will deprotonate under most conditions in the cell)
  • Here are the three differences I pointed out for RNA and DNA:
  • There is the extra oxygen.
  • RNA is almost always single stranded, but that strand can fold back to form stretches of helix. Remember that if you fold a strand back, the arrangement is antiparallel, which is the way nucleic acids align when pairing.
  • The rules for base-paring are the same…except that a different pyrimidine, “Uracil” or “U” stands in for Thymine. It’s pairing is no different. It just lacks a methyl group on the pyrimidine ring.
  • All RNAs in the cell are made by making a copy of DNA. That is, there is DNA in the cell that corresponds to all the types of RNA we have. This will expand our definition of “Gene” a little.
  • There are three main types of RNA in the cell (that’s a lie…there are more). But, the three main types for now are:
  • mRNA: the message form of the code. The mRNA will look just like the coding strand of DNA, except it will have uracil instead of thymine (and have the 2’ oxygen).
  • rRNA: The structure of the machine that reads the code and synthesizes protein. This machine is called the “ribosome” and actually includes proteins as well. It is the RNA that is the major player.
  • tRNA: transfer RNA is the “adapter” molecule. It is an RNA and therefore can “read” the code using base-pair rules. But, at one end of it, there is a specific amino acid. So, the tRNA that reads the codon UGG in messenger RNA will have a phenylalanine attached to the end of it, because UGG is a “codon” for phenylalanine (phe, or simply “F”).
  • Below is the structure of the Phenylalanine tRNA.
  • 220px-TRNA-Phe_yeast_1ehz
  • Notice that it has a detailed structure, not unlike a protein. In this case, the “secondary structure” is mediated by base-pairing. Where protein has helices and sheets, RNA has “stems” and “loops.” I’m pretty sure you can see in the cartoon to the lower right of the structure what a stem and loop is. The stems are regions of base pairing and loops have free, non-base-paired bases. That blue loop at the bottom is the “anticodon loop.” In the gray section it has the sequence 5’ CCA, so that it reads the 5’UGG codon. It may seem more natural to write the anticodon as ACC to show that it pairs with UGG. However, I will almost always write 5’ to 3’.
  • It also has tertiary structure, folding up in the “L” shape you see. That is also mediated by base pairing and other interactions.
  • You know it’s funny, you would think looking at this structure that we would have guessed that RNA like this could have protein-like functions. Well, nobody guessed it (except Francis Crick). But, it turns out to be true. I’ll talk more about that later.
  • The wikipedia entry has some nice, simple pictures of translation--the making of proteins using the mRNA sequence as a guide. We’ll cover that later. But, if you want to take a look.