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After studying this chapter, you should be able to:


  • Name the prominent cellular organelles and state their functions in cells.
  • Name the building blocks of the cellular cytoskeleton and state their contributions to cell structure and function.
  • Name the intercellular and cellular to extracellular connections.
  • Define the processes of exocytosis and endocytosis, and describe the contribution of each to normal cell function.
  • Define proteins that contribute to membrane permeability and transport.
  • Recognize various forms of intercellular communication and describe ways in which chemical messengers (including second messengers) affect cellular physiology.


The cell is the fundamental working unit of all organisms. In humans, cells can be highly specialized in both structure and function; alternatively, cells from different organs can share features and function. In the previous chapter, we examined some basic principles of biophysics and the catabolism and metabolism of building blocks found in the cell. In some of those discussions, we examined how the building blocks could contribute to basic cellular physiology (eg, DNA replication, transcription, and translation). In this chapter, we will briefly review more of the fundamental aspects of cellular and molecular physiology. Additional aspects that concern specialization of cellular and molecular physiology are considered in the next chapters concerning immune function and excitable cells, and, within the sections that highlight each physiological system.


A basic knowledge of cell biology is essential to an understanding of the organ systems and the way they function in the body. A key tool for examining cellular constituents is the microscope. A light microscope can resolve structures as close as 0.2 μm, while an electron microscope can resolve structures as close as 0.002 μm. Although cell dimensions are quite variable, this resolution can give us a good look at the inner workings of the cell. The advent of common access to phase contrast, fluorescent, confocal, and many other microscopy techniques along with specialized probes for both static and dynamic cellular structures further expanded the examination of cell structure and function. Equally revolutionary advances in modern biophysical, biochemical, and molecular biological techniques have also greatly contributed to our knowledge of the cell.


The specialization of the cells in the various organs is considerable, and no cell can be called “typical” of all cells in the body. However, a number of structures (organelles) are common to most cells. These structures are shown in Figure 2–1. Many of them can be isolated by ultracentrifugation combined with other techniques. When cells are homogenized and the resulting suspension is centrifuged, the nuclei sediment first, followed by the mitochondria. High-speed centrifugation that generates forces of 100,000 times gravity or more causes a fraction made up of granules called the microsomes to sediment. This fraction includes organelles such as the ribosomes and peroxisomes.

Figure 2–1
Graphic Jump Location

Diagram showing a hypothetical cell in the center as seen with the ...

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