What is Cell Biology?

Cell biology focuses on understanding the structure and function of the cell. It assumes that the cell is the central unit of life, and from deepening our understanding of it, scientists hope to understand more about disease, injury, and even fertility.

Human Cells

Human Cells. Image Credit: Billion Photos/Shutterstock.com

Emphasizing the role of the cell as the fundamental unit of life facilitates a deeper understanding of the workings of the tissues and organisms that the cells construct, and, therefore, provides fine-grain detail as to what cells need to function normally, and what causes dysfunction and ultimately disease.

Scientists involved in cell biology are interested in discovering the properties of cells that are both general and unique, they seek to elucidate the intricate processes that underly the vital functions that support life.

Overall, the study of cell biology is motivated to provide clarity at the morpho-functional level of how different classes of cells accomplish their range of tasks, and how they interact with other cells to allow them to function also. Recently, cell biology has seen increased attention due to the potential it has to improve therapeutic options for a range of diseases.

Here, we will discuss the motivation to study cell biology, its background, where it is heading, and how the discipline may help to improve disease management.

Why look at cells?

Cells are the building blocks of life. Events that occur at the cellular level dictate how the body functions. Often, interactions and processes that impact health and disease occur at the cellular level.

Therefore, gaining a deeper understanding of how cells function is essential to furthering our knowledge of life. Cell biology allows us to determine how deviation from a normal cellular function can lead to disease and can influence the development of new therapeutic approaches.

The history of cell biology

Within nature, many organisms are made up of just a single type of cells, such as bacteria or yeast. In other organisms, multiple cell types are organized into groups that interact to form the tissues and organs that construct the organism.

In these larger, multicellular organisms, the exact function of each cell type, and the processes and tasks it carries out can be incredibly difficult to define due to the size of cells and their interactions with other cells and molecules.

Individual cells can be as small as just 0.2 μm in diameter (a type of single-celled bacterium known as mycoplasmas have been measured to be this size, roughly 0.000039 of an inch). While human cells tend to be larger, roughly 20 μm in diameter, they are still too small to be studied with simple equipment, and, therefore, cell biology has required technology to develop alongside the progression of the discipline.

Therefore, cell biology has taken many decades to grow its knowledge of cells. The starting point of the discipline can be considered as being the work that took place in the 1830s, when Schleiden (who was studying plant cells), and Schwann, (who was studying animal cells) defined a cell for the very first time.

Modern explorations of cell biology

Since the first definition of a cell in the 1800s, the techniques used to study cells, such as microscopes and staining techniques have vastly developed. For example, the microscopes used at the time of the first definition of a cell were able to magnify a specimen a few hundredfolds.

Now, electron microscopes have been developed with the capability to magnify specimens by more than a million times. As a result, scientists have been able to see cells with greater and greater clarity as the technology has evolved. Now, scientists can see cells in three dimensions and can visualize activity occurring within the cell and in the surrounding environment.

As scientists have been better equipped to view cells, specialization within the field of cell biology has occurred. Many subfields of cell biology are now well established, including sectors dedicated to investigating cell energy and cell metabolism, the study of cell genetics and its connection with proteins that govern the release of genetic information from the cell, the study of subcellular components, and the study of cell communication and signaling.

Cell biology and all its subfields are instrumental to how we are developing our view of disease. All these emerging ways of looking at, and questioning the functioning of cells have to lead to us viewing disease at a cellular level, which may lead to more effective future treatments.

Cell biology and disease

A whole host of diseases and disorders, including Alzheimers disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, malaria, and meningitis, have all been defined as arising from problems occurring at the cellular level.

Through cell biology, scientists are working on deepening our understanding of the difference between cells in a healthy state, and those in a diseased state. Cell biology is helping to develop new vaccines and medicines and is vital in increasing quality of life, and, ultimately, helping us to understand how all living things exist.

In the future, cell biology will likely facilitate therapeutic breakthroughs, such as using genetic and cellular information to highlight those at an elevated risk of developing a particular disease.

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Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 26, 2021

Sarah Moore

Written by

Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.

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