Part a: Human cheek cells as viewed by light microscopy have an irregular round shape and a well-defined nucleus that takes up about one-half of the cell. Part b: Onion skin cells, also viewed by light microscopy, are long and thin with a rectangular shape defined by a cell wall. They are about as wide as a cheek cell, but at least five times as long. The cell wall and nucleus are well defined in the micrograph. The onion cell nucleus is about the same size as the cheek cell nucleus. Part c: In this scann
Figure 4.1 (a) Nasal sinus cells viewed with a light microscope, (b) onion cells viewed with a light microscope, and (c) Vibrio tasmaniensis bacterial cells as seen through a scanning electron microscope, are from very different organisms, yet all share certain characteristics of basic cell structure. (credit a: modification of work by Ed Uthman, MD; credit b: modification of work by Umberto Salvagnin; credit c: modification of work by Anthony D'Onofrio, William H. Fowle, Eric J. Stewart, and Kim Lewis of the Lewis Lab at Northeastern University; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Close your eyes and picture a brick wall. What is the basic building block of that wall? A single brick, of course. Like a brick wall, your body is composed of basic building blocks called cells.

Your body has many kinds of cells, each specialized for a specific purpose. Just as a home is made from a variety of building materials, the human body is constructed from many cell types. For example, epithelial cells protect the surface of the body and cover the organs and body cavities within. Bone cells help to support and protect the body. Immune system cells fight invading pathogens. Additionally, blood cells carry nutrients and oxygen throughout the body while removing carbon dioxide and other waste. Each of these cell types plays a vital role during the growth, development, and ongoing maintenance of the body. In spite of their enormous variety, however, cells from all organisms—even organisms as diverse as bacteria, onion, and human—share certain fundamental characteristics.

In humans, before a cell develops into its specialized type, it is called a stem cell. A stem cell is a cell that has not undergone the changes involved in specialization. In this state, it may differentiate to become one of many different specialized cells, and it may divide to produce more stem cells. Under normal circumstances, once a cell becomes specialized, it remains that way. However, scientists have been working on coaxing stem cells in the laboratory to become a particular specialization. For example, scientists at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center have learned how to use stem cells to grow stomach tissue in plastic cell and tissue culture dishes. This accomplishment will enable researchers to study gastric human diseases, such as stomach cancer. You can read more about it here.


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