How Cells Work

Cell Parts

Your body is made of about 10 trillion cells. The largest human cells are about the diameter of a human hair, but most human cells are smaller -- perhaps one-tenth of the diameter of a human hair.

Run your fingers through your hair now and look at a single strand. It is not very thick -- maybe 100 microns in diameter (a micron is a millionth of a meter, so 100 microns is a tenth of a millimeter). A typical human cell might be one-tenth of the diameter of your hair (10 microns). Look down at your little toe -- it might represent 2 or 3 billion cells or so, depending on how big you are. Imagine a whole house filled with baby peas. If the house is your little toe, the peas are the cells. That's a lot of cells!


Bacteria are about the simplest cells that exist today. A bacteria is a single, self-contained, living cell. An Escherichia coli bacteria (or E. coli bacteria) is typical -- it is about one-hundredth the size of a human cell (maybe a micron long and one-tenth of a micron wide), so it is invisible without a microscope. When you get an infection, the bacteria are swimming around your big cells like little rowboats next to a large ship.

Bacteria are a lot simpler than human cells. A bacterium consists of an outer wrapper called the cell membrane, and inside the membrane is a watery fluid called the cytoplasm. Cytoplasm might be 70-percent water. The other 30 percent is filled with proteins called enzymes that the cell has manufactured, along with smaller molecules like amino acids, glucose molecules and ATP. At the center of the cell is a ball of DNA (similar to a wadded-up ball of string). If you were to stretch out this DNA into a single long strand, it would be incredibly long compared to the bacteria -- about 1000 times longer!

An E. coli bacterium has a distinctive, capsule shape. The outer portion of the cell is the cell membrane, shown here in orange. In E. coli, there are actually two closely-spaced membranes protecting the cell. Inside the membrane is the cytoplasm, made up of millions of enzymes, sugars, ATP and other molecules floating freely in water. At the center of the cell is its DNA. The DNA is like a wadded-up ball of string. There is no protection for the DNA in a bacterium -- the wadded-up ball floats in the cytoplasm roughly in the center of the cell. Attached to the outside of the cell are long strands called flagella, which propel the cell. Not all bacterium have flagella, and no human cells have them besides sperm cells.

Human cells are much more complex than bacteria. They contain a special nuclear membrane to protect the DNA, additional membranes and structures like mitochondria and Golgi bodies, and a variety of other advanced features. However, the fundamental processes are the same in bacteria and human cells, so we will start with bacteria.