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Chapter: Medical Physiology: Introduction to Physiology: The Cell and Its Functions

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Organization of the Cell

Organization of the Cell
A typical cell, as seen by the light microscope, is shown in Figure 2–1. Its two major parts are the nucleus and the cytoplasm.

Organization of the Cell

A typical cell, as seen by the light microscope, is shown in Figure 2–1. Its two major parts are the nucleus and the cytoplasm. The nucleus is separated from the cytoplasm by a nuclear membrane, and the cytoplasm is separated from the surrounding fluids by a cell membrane, also called the plasma membrane.

        The different substances that make up the cell are collectively called proto-plasm. Protoplasm is composed mainly of five basic substances: water, elec-trolytes, proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates.

Water. The principal fluid medium of the cell is water, which is present in mostcells, except for fat cells, in a concentration of 70 to 85 per cent. Many cellular chemicals are dissolved in the water. Others are suspended in the water as solid particulates. Chemical reactions take place among the dissolved chemicals or at the surfaces of the suspended particles or membranes.

Ions. The most important ions in the cell arepotassium, magnesium, phosphate,sulfate, bicarbonate, and smaller quantities of sodium, chloride, and calcium.

These are all discussed in more detail which considers the inter-relations between the intracellular and extracellular fluids.

           The ions provide inorganic chemicals for cellular reactions. Also, they are necessary for operation of some of the cellular control mechanisms. For instance, ions acting at the cell membrane are required for transmission of elec-trochemical impulses in nerve and muscle fibers.

Proteins. After water, the most abundant substances in most cells are proteins,which normally constitute 10 to 20 per cent of the cell mass. These can be divided into two types: structural proteins and functional proteins.

Structural proteins are present in the cell mainly in the form of long filamentsthat themselves are polymers of many individual protein molecules. A promi-nent use of such intracellular filaments is to form microtubules that provide the “cytoskeletons” of such cellular organelles as cilia, nerve axons, the mitotic spindles of mitosing cells, and a tangled mass of thin filamentous tubules that hold the parts of the cytoplasm and nucleoplasm together in their respective compartments. Extracellularly, fibrillar proteins are found especially in the col-lagen and elastin fibers of connective tissue and in blood vessel walls, tendons, ligaments, and so forth.


The functional proteins are an entirely different type of protein, usually composed of combinations of a few molecules in tubular-globular form. 

These proteins are mainly the enzymes of the cell and, in contrast to the fibrillar proteins, are often mobile in the cell fluid. Also, many of them are adherent to membranous structures inside the cell. The enzymes come into direct contact with other substances in the cell fluid and thereby catalyze specific intracellular chemical reactions. For instance, the chemical reactions that split glucose into its component parts and then combine these with oxygen to form carbon dioxide and water while simultaneously providing energy for cellular function are all catalyzed by a series of protein enzymes.

Lipids. Lipids are several types of substances that are grouped together because of their common property of being soluble in fat solvents. Especially important lipids  are  phospholipids  and  cholesterol,  which together constitute only about 2 per cent of the total  cell mass. The significance of phospholipids and cholesterol is that they are mainly insoluble in water and, therefore, are used to form the cell membrane and intracellular membrane barriers that separate the different cell compartments.

        In addition to phospholipids and cholesterol, some cells  contain  large  quantities  of  triglycerides,  also called neutral fat. In thefat cells, triglycerides often account for as much as 95 per cent of the cell mass. The fat stored in these cells represents the body’s main storehouse of energy-giving nutrients that can later be dissoluted and used to provide energy wherever in the body it is needed.

Carbohydrates. Carbohydrates have little structuralfunction in the cell except as parts of glycoprotein mol-ecules, but they play a major role in nutrition of the cell. Most human cells do not maintain large stores of carbohydrates; the amount usually averages about 1 per cent of their total mass but increases to as much as 3 per cent in muscle cells and, occasionally, 6 per cent in liver cells. However, carbohydrate in the form of dissolved glucose is always present in the surrounding extracellular fluid so that it is readily available to the cell. Also, a small amount of carbohy- drate is virtually always stored in the cells in the form of glycogen, which is an insoluble polymer of glucose that can be depolymerized and used rapidly to supply the cells’ energy needs.


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