Types of Cells and Organelles for AP Biology

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Oct 24, 2011

Practice problems for these concepts can be found at:  Cells Review Questions for AP Biology

Types of Cells

The prokaryotic cell is a simple cell. It has no nucleus, and no membrane-bound organelles. The genetic material of a prokaryotic cell is found in a region of the cell known as the nucleoid. Bacteria are a fine example of prokaryotic cells and divide by a process known as binary fission; they duplicate their genetic material, divide in half, and produce two identical daughter cells. Prokaryotic cells are found only in the kingdom Monera (bacteria group).

The eukaryotic cell is much more complex. It contains a nucleus, which functions as the control center of the cell, directing DNA replication, transcription, and cell growth. Eukaryotic organisms may be unicellular or multicellular. One of the key features of eukaryotic cells is the presence of membrane-bound organelles, each with its own duties. Two prominent members of the "Eukaryote Club" are animal and plant cells; the differences between these types of cells are discussed in the next section.


You should familiarize yourselves with approximately a dozen organelles and cell structures before taking the AP Biology exam:

Prokaryotic Organelles

You should be familiar with the following structures:

Plasma membrane. This is a selective barrier around a cell composed of a double layer of phospholipids. Part of this selectivity is due to the many proteins that either rest on the exterior of the membrane or are embedded in the membrane of the cell. Each membrane has a different combination of lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates that provide it with its unique characteristics.

Cell wall. This is a wall or barrier that functions to shape and protect cells. This is present in all prokaryotes.

Ribosomes. These function as the host organelle for protein synthesis in the cell. They are found in the cytoplasm of cells and are composed of a large unit and a small subunit.

Eukaryotic Organelles

You should be familiar with the following structures:

Ribosomes. As in prokaryotes, eukaryotic ribosomes serve as the host organelle for protein synthesis. Eukaryotes have bound ribosomes, which are attached to endoplasmic reticula and form proteins that tend to be exported from the cell or sent to the membrane. There are also free ribosomes, which exist freely in the cytoplasm and produce proteins that remain in the cytoplasm of the cell. Eukaryotic ribosomes are built in a structure called the nucleolus.

Smooth endoplasmic reticulum. This is a membrane-bound organelle involved in lipid synthesis, detoxification, and carbohydrate metabolism. Liver cells contain a lot of smooth endoplasmic reticulum (SER) because they host a lot of carbohydrate metabolism (glycolysis). It is given the name "smooth" endoplasmic reticulum because there are no ribosomes on its cytoplasmic surface. The liver contains much SER for another reason—it is the site of alcohol detoxification.

Rough endoplasmic reticulum. This membrane-bound organelle is termed "rough" because of the presence of ribosomes on the cytoplasmic surface of the cell. The proteins produced by this organelle are often secreted by the cell and carried by vesicles to the Golgi apparatus for further modification.

Golgi apparatus. Proteins, lipids, and other macromolecules are sent to the Golgi to be modified by the addition of sugars and other molecules to form glycoproteins. The products are then sent in vesicles (escape pods that bud off the edge of the Golgi) to other parts of the cell, directed by the particular changes made by the Golgi. I think of the Golgi apparatus as the post office of the cell—packages are dropped off by customers, and the Golgi adds the appropriate postage and zip code to make sure that the packages reach proper destinations in the cell.

Mitochondria. These are double-membraned organelles that specialize in the production of ATP. The innermost portion of the mitochondrion is called the matrix, and the folds created by the inner of the two membranes are called cristae. The mitochondria are the host organelle for the Krebs cycle (matrix) and oxidative phosphorylation (cristae) of respiration, which we discuss in Chapter 7. I think of the mitochondria as the power plants of the cell. Lysosome. This is a membrane-bound organelle that specializes in digestion. It contains enzymes that break down (hydrolyze) proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, and carbohydrates.

This organelle is the stomach of the cell. Absence of a particular lysosomal hydrolytic enzyme can lead to a variety of diseases known as storage diseases. An example of this is Tay-Sachs disease (discussed in Chapter 10), in which an enzyme used to digest lipids is absent, leading to excessive accumulation of lipids in the brain. Lysosomes are often referred to as "suicide sacs" of the cell. Cells that are no longer needed are often destroyed in these sacs. An example of this process involves the cells of the tail of a tadpole, which are digested as a tadpole changes into a frog.

Nucleus. This is the control center of the cell. In eukaryotic cells, this is the storage site of genetic material (DNA). It is the site of replication, transcription, and posttranscriptional modification of RNA. It also contains the nucleolus, the site of ribosome synthesis.

Vacuole. This is a storage organelle that acts as a vault. Vacuoles are quite large in plant cells but small in animal cells.

Peroxisomes. These are organelles containing enzymes that produce hydrogen peroxide as a by-product while performing various functions, such as breakdown of fatty acids and detoxification of alcohol in the liver. Peroxisomes also contain an enzyme that converts the toxic hydrogen peroxide by-product of these reactions into cell-friendly water.

Chloroplast. This is the site of photosynthesis and energy production in plant cells. Chloroplasts contain many pigments, which provide leaves with their color. Chloroplasts are divided into inner portion and outer portion. The inner fluid portion is called the stroma, which is surrounded by two outer membranes. Winding through the stroma is an inner membrane called the thylakoid membrane system, where the light-dependent reactions of photosynthesis occur. The light-independent (dark) reactions occur in the stroma.

Cytoskeleton. The skeleton of cells consists of three types of fibers that provide support, shape, and mobility to cells: microtubules, microfilaments, and intermediate filaments. Microtubules are constructed from tubulin and have a lead role in the separation of cells during cell division. Microtubules are also important components of cilia and flagella, which are structures that aid the movement of particles (Chapter 19). Microfilaments, constructed from actin, play a big part in muscular contraction. Intermediate filaments are constructed from a class of proteins called keratins and are thought to function as reinforcement for the shape and position of organelles in the cell.


Practice problems for these concepts can be found at: 

Cells Review Questions for AP Biology

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