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Cell Structures

National Center for Biotechnology Information

The Plasma Membrane – A Cell’s Protective Coat

The outer lining of a eukaryotic cell is called the plasma membrane. This membrane serves to separate and protect a cell from its surrounding environment and is made mostly from a double layer of proteins and lipids, fat-like molecules. Embedded within this membrane are a variety of other molecules that act as channels and pumps, moving different molecules into and out of the cell. A form of plasma membrane is also found in prokaryotes, but in this organism it is usually referred to as the cell membrane.

The Cytoskeleton – A Cell’s Scaffold

The cytoskeleton is an important, complex, and dynamic cell component. It acts to organize and maintain the cell’s shape; anchors organelles in place; helps during endocytosis, the uptake of external materials by a cell; and moves parts of the cell in processes of growth and motility. There are a great number of proteins associated with the cytoskeleton, each controlling a cell’s structure by directing, bundling, and aligning filaments.

The Cytoplasm – A Cell’s Inner Space

Inside the cell there is a large fluid-filled space called the cytoplasm, sometimes called the cytosol. In prokaryotes, this space is relatively free of compartments. In eukaryotes, the cytosol is the “soup” within which all of the cell’s organelles reside. It is also the home of the cytoskeleton. The cytosol contains dissolved nutrients, helps break down waste products, and moves material around the cell through a process called cytoplasmic streaming. The nucleus often flows with the cytoplasm changing its shape as it moves. The cytoplasm also contains many salts and is an excellent conductor of electricity, creating the perfect environment for the mechanics of the cell. The function of the cytoplasm, and the organelles which reside in it, are critical for a cell’s survival.

Genetic Material

Two different kinds of genetic material exist: deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA). Most organisms are made of DNA, but a few viruses have RNA as their genetic material. The biological information contained in an organism is encoded in its DNA or RNA sequence.

Prokaryotic genetic material is organized in a simple circular structure that rests in the cytoplasm. Eukaryotic genetic material is more complex and is divided into discrete units called genes. Human genetic material is made up of two distinct components: the nuclear genome and the mitochondrial genome. The nuclear genome is divided into 24 linear DNA molecules, each contained in a different chromosome. The mitochondrial genome is a circular DNA molecule separate from the nuclear DNA. Although the mitochondrial genome is very small, it codes for some very important proteins.

For information on Cell Organization, click here.



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