What is Cell Biology?

By Mary Smith. Updated: June 3, 2018
What is Cell Biology?

There are many different branches of biology which makes it difficult to work out how to organize them. Which ones are important enough to warrant their own department title? Which should be grouped together? Where do different branches of biology overlap with the other sciences? The reason we need to ask questions such as 'what is cell biology?' is that it will help you best know how to answer other questions. Some of these questions will be asked by students who are looking to narrow their field of study. Some will be from researchers trying to focus their search fields. Others might simply be interested in the incredibly interesting and fundamental world of cellular life. Fortunately, oneHOWTO is here to help anyone wanting to more about this fascinating subject.

What is cell biology?

Cell biology sometimes goes by the longer name of cellular biology, but can also be shortened to cytology. It is the study of the purpose of cells, how they are structured and what do they mean for life on earth. the suffix -ology is used when added to a word to describe the study of that word. When added to bio which means 'life', biology means the study of life. Cells are living things, they respire, required nourishment, grow, etc. Therefore, cell biology is the study of cellular life.

Some cells simply are part of life on earth in that even living organisms can be single celled (unicellular). These include perhaps the most well known unicellular organism the amoeba. As life gets more sophisticated, cells start to form larger organisms such as the one typing this article right now: human beings. Most human beings can be seen without the help of a microscope and this is because they are made up of around 37 trillion individual cells[1]. This could only possibly be an estimation as counting the individual cells in a single person is a practical impossibility.

Another near impossibility to know for sure, but something about which the many scientists agree is statistically probable, is that all life on earth stemmed from the one single cell[2]. As they evolved over billions of years, these cells expanded into the different multicellular organisms we currently see all around us. Understanding the make up of the cell, the different activities of cells, the life cycles of cells and every other aspect of cells not only helps us know about where life came from. It can also help us determine where life is going and, importantly for us humans, how to get there. This means using cells for medical advancements to help sustain, and for some, create life.

Each cell not only has a specific purpose, but a specific function with a specific way it functions. Cytology studies these aspects of cells on a molecular level which means that it not only looks at the cells, but the smaller component parts. This might seem odd as cells themselves often need to be looked at under a microscope, but the molecules which make up the different parts of the cell have many different functions. These different parts are known as organelles and around 75% of organelles consist of water.

Not all cells are small, however. Some unicellular organisms can actually grow quite large, particularly certain algae such as the Caulerpa taxifolia. While not a single celled organism in itself, the ostrich egg is the largest single cell known to currently exist.

The difference between cell biology and microbiology

While both cytology and molecular biology investigate cells and their related organisms, there is a key difference. This difference is the type of cell, which is divided roughly into two: eukaryotes and prokaryotes. The first, eukaryotes, are the cells which have a membrane, encasing DNA within a nucleus. They make up plants, fungi, insects, animals and more. They are discussed and discovered under the umbrella of cytology.

Prokaryotes are the rest. Cells which don't have molecules contained within a membrane or a a nucleus. They make up other organisms such as bacteria and Archaea. These are studied in the form of microbiology. Both cell biology and microbiology are studied at the molecular level.

The history of cell biology has been interlinked with the development of the biotechnology used to study cells. This, to begin with, meant microscopes. Although microscopes had been used for some time before the 19th century, it wasn't until then scientists started to create the concepts of cellular life. Even compared to other sciences, it is in relative infancy.

Nowadays, cell biologists are able to use much more sophisticated technology to investigate the molecular structures of cells. This includes cell cultures, such as that accidentally created by Alexander Flemming which lead to the discovery of penicillin. Computers and much more powerful microscopes are being used to discover the hidden world of cells.

What is Cell Biology? - The difference between cell biology and microbiology

Interesting research topics covered by cell biology

There are many fascinating topics covered under the banner of cellular biology. One of the most fascinating is in regards to genetics and specifically DNA. DNA is contained within the nucleus of a cell (i.e the eukaryotes which are covered by cell biology, not microbiology). This can help us understand what potential risks a child born to two individuals might exist. It can help us understand where we came from and where we are going in terms of how our genes will be passed on. DNA is also useful in solving crimes and working out paternity tests, meaning there is overlap with cellular biology and criminal or familial law.

Cell biology is incredibly important in terms of biomedicine. Learning how cells react against different influences can show how our bodies defend against certain diseases, viruses and infections. This means everything to aiding symptoms of the common cold to curing cancer. By looking at all the different parts of a cell and how they behave, biomedical researchers can see what medicines can do to provide their own influence over cells. How cells are destroyed (apoptosis and necrosis) is an important part of cell biology.

Agriculture is also an important and burgeoning cell biology field which has the potential to make the world a better place. This is because it can be used to create new sustainable food sources at a time when many people in the world are starving.

There are research, educational, clinical, pharmaceutical and many more types of career you can pursue with a cytology degree. Even if you don't want to go into something which is directly related to cell biology, since it is the study of the makeup of almost all life on earth, it should prove useful.

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