What Is A Cell?

(sel) In biology, the smallest unit that can live on its own and that makes up all living organisms and the tissues of the body. A cell has three main parts: the cell membrane, the nucleus, and the cytoplasm. The cell membrane surrounds the cell and controls the substances that go into and out of the cell.

Cells are the basic, fundamental unit of life. So, if we were to break apart an organism to the cellular level, the smallest independent component that we would find would be the cell.

Explore the cell notes to know what is a cell, cell definition, cell structure, types and functions of cells. These notes have an in-depth description of all the concepts related to cells.

Table Of Contents

Cells are the fundamental unit of life. They range in size from 0.0001 mm to nearly 150 mm across

Cell Definition

“A cell is defined as the smallest, basic unit of life that is responsible for all of life’s processes.”

Cells are the structural, functional, and biological units of all living beings. A cell can replicate itself independently. Hence, they are known as the building blocks of life.

Each cell contains a fluid called the cytoplasm, which is enclosed by a membrane. Also present in the cytoplasm are several biomolecules like proteins, nucleic acids and lipids. Moreover, cellular structures called cell organelles are suspended in the cytoplasm.

What is a Cell?

A cell is the structural and fundamental unit of life. The study of cells from its basic structure to the functions of every cell organelle is called Cell Biology. Robert Hooke was the first Biologist who discovered cells.

All organisms are made up of cells. They may be made up of a single cell (unicellular), or many cells (multicellular). Mycoplasmas are the smallest known cells. Cells are the building blocks of all living beings. They provide structure to the body and convert the nutrients taken from the food into energy.

Cells are complex and their components perform various functions in an organism. They are of different shapes and sizes, pretty much like bricks of the buildings. Our body is made up of cells of different shapes and sizes.

Cells are the lowest level of organisation in every life form. From organism to organism, the count of cells may vary. Humans have the number of cells compared to that of bacteria.

Cells comprise several cell organelles that perform specialised functions to carry out life processes. Every organelle has a specific structure. The hereditary material of the organisms is also present in the cells.

Discovery of Cells

Discovery of cells is one of the remarkable advancements in the field of science. It helps us know that all the organisms are made up of cells, and these cells help in carrying out various life processes. The structure and functions of cells helped us to understand life in a better way.

Who discovered cells?

Robert Hooke discovered the cell in 1665. Robert Hooke observed a piece of bottle cork under a compound microscope and noticed minuscule structures that reminded him of small rooms. Consequently, he named these “rooms” as cells. However, his compound microscope had limited magnification, and hence, he could not see any details in the structure. Owing to this limitation, Hooke concluded that these were non-living entities.

Later Anton Van Leeuwenhoek observed cells under another compound microscope with higher magnification. This time, he had noted that the cells exhibited some form of movement (motility). As a result, Leeuwenhoek concluded that these microscopic entities were “alive.” Eventually, after a host of other observations, these entities were named as animalcules.

In 1883, Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist, provided the very first insights into the cell structure. He was able to describe the nucleus present in the cells of orchids.

Characteristics of Cells

Following are the various essential characteristics of cells:

Cells provide structure and support to the body of an organism.The cell interior is organised into different individual organelles surrounded by a separate membrane.The nucleus (major organelle) holds genetic information necessary for reproduction and cell growth.Every cell has one nucleus and membrane-bound organelles in the cytoplasm.Mitochondria, a double membrane-bound organelle is mainly responsible for the energy transactions vital for the survival of the cell.Lysosomes digest unwanted materials in the cell.Endoplasmic reticulum plays a significant role in the internal organisation of the cell by synthesising selective molecules and processing, directing and sorting them to their appropriate locations.

Also Read: Nucleus

Types of Cells

Cells are similar to factories with different labourers and departments that work towards a common objective. Various types of cells perform different functions. Based on cellular structure, there are two types of cells:

Explore: Difference Between Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells

Prokaryotic Cells

Main article: Prokaryotic Cells

Prokaryotic cells have no nucleus. Instead, some prokaryotes such as bacteria have a region within the cell where the genetic material is freely suspended. This region is called the nucleoid.They all are single-celled microorganisms. Examples include archaea, bacteria, and cyanobacteria.The cell size ranges from 0.1 to 0.5 µm in diameter.The hereditary material can either be DNA or RNA.Prokaryotes generally reproduce by binary fission, a form of asexual reproduction. They are also known to use conjugation – which is often seen as the prokaryotic equivalent to sexual reproduction (however, it is NOT sexual reproduction).

Eukaryotic Cells

Main article: Eukaryotic Cells

Eukaryotic cells are characterised by a true nucleus.The size of the cells ranges between 10–100 µm in diameter.This broad category involves plants, fungi, protozoans, and animals.The plasma membrane is responsible for monitoring the transport of nutrients and electrolytes in and out of the cells. It is also responsible for cell to cell communication.They reproduce sexually as well as asexually.There are some contrasting features between plant and animal cells. For eg., the plant cell contains chloroplast, central vacuoles, and other plastids, whereas the animal cells do not.

Cell Structure

The cell structure comprises individual components with specific functions essential to carry out life’s processes. These components include- cell wall, cell membrane, cytoplasm, nucleus, and cell organelles. Read on to explore more insights on cell structure and function.

Cell Membrane

The cell membrane supports and protects the cell. It controls the movement of substances in and out of the cells. It separates the cell from the external environment. The cell membrane is present in all the cells.The cell membrane is the outer covering of a cell within which all other organelles, such as the cytoplasm and nucleus, are enclosed. It is also referred to as the plasma membrane.By structure, it is a porous membrane (with pores) which permit the movement of selective substances in and out of the cell. Besides this, the cell membrane also protects the cellular component from damage and leakage.It forms the wall-like structure between two cells as well as between the cell and its surroundings.Plants are immobile, so their cell structures are well-adapted to protect them from external factors. The cell wall helps to reinforce this function.

Cell Wall

The cell wall is the most prominent part of the plant’s cell structure. It is made up of cellulose, hemicellulose and pectin.The cell wall is present exclusively in plant cells. It protects the plasma membrane and other cellular components. The cell wall is also the outermost layer of plant cells.It is a rigid and stiff structure surrounding the cell membrane.It provides shape and support to the cells and protects them from mechanical shocks and injuries.


The cytoplasm is a thick, clear, jelly-like substance present inside the cell membrane.Most of the chemical reactions within a cell take place in this cytoplasm.The cell organelles such as endoplasmic reticulum, vacuoles, mitochondria, ribosomes, are suspended in this cytoplasm.


The nucleus contains the hereditary material of the cell, the DNA.It sends signals to the cells to grow, mature, divide and die.The nucleus is surrounded by the nuclear envelope that separates the DNA from the rest of the cell.The nucleus protects the DNA and is an integral component of a plant’s cell structure.

Cell Organelles

Cells are composed of various cell organelles that perform certain specific functions to carry out life’s processes. The different cell organelles, along with its principal functions, are as follows:

Cell Organelle and its Functions


The nucleolus is the site of ribosome synthesis. Also, it is involved in controlling cellular activities and cellular reproduction

Nuclear membrane

The nuclear membrane protects the nucleus by forming a boundary between the nucleus and other cell organelles.


Chromosomes play a crucial role in determining the sex of an individual. Each human cells contain 23 pairs of chromosomes

Endoplasmic reticulum

The endoplasmic reticulum is involved in the transportation of substances throughout the cell. It plays a primary role in the metabolism of carbohydrates, synthesis of lipids, steroids and proteins.

Golgi Bodies

Golgi bodies are called the cell’s post office as it is involved in the transportation of materials within the cell


Ribosomes are the protein synthesisers of the cell


The mitochondrion is called “the powerhouse of the cell.” It is called so because it produces ATP – the cell’s energy currency


Lysosomes protect the cell by engulfing the foreign bodies entering the cell and helps in cell renewal. Therefore, it is known as the cell’s suicide bags


Chloroplasts are the primary organelles for photosynthesis. It contains the pigment chlorophyll


Vacuoles stores food, water, and other waste materials in the cell

Cell Theory

Cell Theory was proposed by the German scientists, Theodor Schwann, Matthias Schleiden, and Rudolf Virchow. The cell theory states that:

All living species on Earth are composed of cells.A cell is the basic unit of life.All cells arise from pre-existing cells.

A modern version of the cell theory was eventually formulated, and it contains the following postulates:

Energy flows within the cells.Genetic information is passed on from one cell to the other.The chemical composition of all the cells is the same.

Functions of Cell

A cell performs these major functions essential for the growth and development of an organism. Important functions of cell are as follows:

Provides Support and Structure

All the organisms are made up of cells. They form the structural basis of all the organisms. The cell wall and the cell membrane are the main components that function to provide support and structure to the organism. For eg., the skin is made up of a large number of cells. Xylem present in the vascular plants is made of cells that provide structural support to the plants.

Facilitate Growth Mitosis

In the process of mitosis, the parent cell divides into the daughter cells. Thus, the cells multiply and facilitate the growth in an organism.

Allows Transport of Substances

Various nutrients are imported by the cells to carry out various chemical processes going on inside the cells. The waste produced by the chemical processes is eliminated from the cells by active and passive transport. Small molecules such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and ethanol diffuse across the cell membrane along the concentration gradient. This is known as passive transport. The larger molecules diffuse across the cell membrane through active transport where the cells require a lot of energy to transport the substances.

Energy Production

Cells require energy to carry out various chemical processes. This energy is produced by the cells through a process called photosynthesis in plants and respiration in animals.

Aids in Reproduction

A cell aids in reproduction through the processes called mitosis and meiosis. Mitosis is termed as the asexual reproduction where the parent cell divides to form daughter cells. Meiosis causes the daughter cells to be genetically different from the parent cells. Thus, we can understand why cells are known as the structural and functional unit of life. This is because they are responsible for providing structure to the organisms and performs several functions necessary for carrying out life’s processes.

Also Read: Difference Between Plant Cell and Animal Cell

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Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is a Cell?

A cell is defined as the fundamental, structural and functional unit of all life.

2. State the characteristics of cells.

Cells provide the necessary structural support for an organism.The genetic information necessary for reproduction is present within the nucleus.Structurally, the cell has cell organelles which are suspended in the cytoplasm.Mitochondria is the organelle responsible for fulfilling the cell’s energy requirements.Lysosomes digest metabolic wastes and foreign particles in the cell.Endoplasmic reticulum synthesises selective molecules and processes them, eventually directing them to their appropriate locations.

3. Highlight the cell structure and its components.

Cell membraneCell wallCell organellesNucleolusNuclear membraneEndoplasmic reticulumGolgi BodiesRibosomeMitochondriaLysosomesChloroplastVacuoles

4. State the types of cells.

Cells are primarily classified into two types, namely

Prokaryotic cellsEukaryotic cells

5. Elaborate Cell Theory.

Cell Theory was proposed by Matthias Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, and Rudolf Virchow, who were German scientists. The cell theory states that:

All living species on Earth are composed of cells.A cell is the basic unit of life.All cells arise from pre-existing cells.

6. What is the function of mitochondria in the cells?

Mitochondria are known as the powerhouse of the cells. Their primary function is to produce the energy currency of the cells, ATP. It also regulates cellular metabolism.

7. What are the functions of the cell?

The essential functions of the cell include:

The cell provides support and structure to the body.Facilitates growth by mitosisHelps in reproductionProvides energy and allows the transport of substances.

8. What is the function of Golgi bodies?

Golgi bodies package, and sort the proteins for secretion. It creates lysosomes and transports lipids around the cells.

9. Who discovered cell and how?

Robert Hooke discovered cells in 1665. He observed a piece of cork under a compound microscope and noticed minute structures reminiscent of small rooms. Consequently, he named his discovery “cells.”

10. Name the cell organelle that contains hydrolytic enzymes capable of breaking down organic matter.

11. Which cellular structure regulates the entry and exit of molecules to and from the cell?

Cell membrane. It is a selectively permeable structure that controls the exit and entry of molecules into the cell.

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Further Reading: Cell Biology MCQs