The basic structural unit of body tissues. There are around 10 billion cells in the human body and they are structurally and functionally linked to carry out the body’s many complex activities.
Every cell consists essentially of a cell-body of soft albuminous material called cytoplasm, in which lies a kernel or nucleus which seems to direct all the activities of the cell. Within the nucleus may be seen a minute body, the nucleolus; and there may or may not be a cell-envelope around all. (See also MITOCHONDRIA.) Each cell nucleus carries a set of identical CHROMOSOMES, the body’s genetic instructions.
Cells vary much in size, ranging in the human body from 0·0025 mm to about 0·025 mm.
All animals and plants consist at ﬁrst of a single cell (the egg-cell, or ovum), which begins to develop when fertilised by the sperm-cell derived from the opposite sex. Development begins by a division into two new cells, then into four, and so on till a large mass is formed. These cells – among them stem cells (see STEM CELL) which have the potential to develop into a variety of specialised cells – then arrange themselves into layers, and form various tubes, rods, and masses which represent in the embryo the organs of the fully developed animal. (See FETUS.)
When the individual organs have been laid down on a scaﬀolding of cells, these gradually change in shape and in chemical composition. The cells in the nervous system send out long processes to form the nerves; those in the muscles become long and striped in appearance; and those which form fat become ﬁlled with fat droplets which distend the cells. Further, they begin to produce, between one another, the substances which give the various tissues their special character. Thus, in the future bones, some cells deposit lime salts and others form cartilage, while in tendons they produce long white ﬁbres of a gelatinous substance. In some organs the cells change little: thus the liver consists of columns of large cells packed together, while many cells, like the white blood corpuscles, retain their primitive characters almost entire.
Thus cells are the active agents in forming the body, and they have a similar function in repairing its wear and tear. Tumours, and especially malignant tumours, have a highly cellular structure, the cells being of an embryonic type, or, at best, forming poor imitations of the tissues in which they grow (see TUMOUR).