Southern Illinois University


Nerve & Muscle Tissue

Cell Structure and Function

Histology is primarily the study of the arrangement of differentiated cells into tissues.  Cell biology comprises essential background knowledge for studying histology.  Our Year One curriculum presumes familiarity with cell biology, with basic cell structure and function, from undergraduate course work.  This page may serve as a check-list to guide your review of cell biology.  

Historical note:  The word cell, in reference to a biological structure, was introduced by Robert Hooke in 1665; also see Schwann.  (For the establishment of the word "tissues" and the study of "histology" per se, see Bichat.)

All living things are composed of cells and cell products.  This "Cell Doctrine" (widely attributed to Schleiden and Schwann) is one of the greatest unifying principles in the science of biology.  Each of our body's cells contains all of the parts and processes necessary for life and is potentially an independent organism.  (Some, like macrophages, are more independent than others!)  All of our bodily functions, even our thoughts, derive from the activities and interactions of these individual cells.

All diseases result from disorders in cellular function.  This premise was put forward by Rudolf Virchow, the father of modern pathology, in the middle of the nineteenth century, soon after the establishment of the Cell Doctrine by Schleiden and Schwann

"Life itself is but the expression of a sum of phenomena, each of which follows the ordinary physical and chemical laws. ... Disease is not something personal and special, but only a manifestation of life under modified conditions, operating according to the same laws as apply to the living body at all times, from the first moment until death." [Virchow]

A cellular perspective is particularly relevant for many of the major health problems of the present time, including cancer, immunological disorders, vascular diseases, and mental illness.

For excellent introductory exercises, see Ed (The Path Guy)'s Basic Histology Gallery.

For an extensive collection of images of cellular components, see the Electron Microscopic Atlas of Mammalian Tissues from the Universität Mainz (some images available only with German-language labels).  Also see Rhodin's An Atlas of Histology in the MRC, an exceptional collection of electron micrographs of tissues in most organs.

For a much more comprehensive overview of cell biology, see Molecular Biology of the Cell.  This online textbook (Bruce Alberts, et al., 4th ed, © 2002), "the classic in-depth text reference in cell biology," is highly recommended as a refresher or solid introduction to topics in cell biology. 
Check lists of learning objectives:

Cell Structure Objective:  All of the following terms should be part of your working vocabulary (i.e., you should not need a dictionary to define the terms or or an atlas to identify the associated structures).  You should understand how each of these structures contributes to cell function and to the appearance of differentiated cell types.

  • nucleus
    • nuclear membrane
    • euchromatin
    • heterochromatin
    • nucleolus
  • plasma membrane / cell surface
    • endocytotic vesicles
    • coated pits
    • glycocalyx
    • cell junctions
      • tight (occluding) junctions
      • adhering junctions
      • gap (communicating) junctions
    • microvilli
    • cilia (inc. primary cilium)
  • cytosol
  • inclusions
    • pigment granules
    • lipid
    • glycogen
  • membranous organelles
    • mitochondria
    • rough endoplasmic reticulum
    • smooth endoplasmic reticulum
    • Golgi apparatus
    • vesicles
      • transport vesicles
      • secretory vesicles
      • lysosomes, phagosomes
      • peroxisomes (microbodies)
  • non-membranous organelles
    • ribosomes
    • cytoskeleton
      • microfilaments
        • intermediate filaments
        • actin filaments
      • microtubules
      • mitotic spindle
    • centriole / basal body

Cell Function Objective:  All of the following terms should be part of your working vocabulary (i.e., you should not need a dictionary for definitions).  You should understand what cell structures are involved in each of these functions and how each contributes to the overall economy of the cell.  You should also understand the basic biochemistry associated with these functions.

  • movement
    • internal transport
    • contractility
    • amoeboid locomotion
    • ciliary action
  • absorption / secretion
    • phagocytosis
    • pinocytosis
    • exocytosis
    • transport across membranes
    • membrane recycling
  • cell-cell attachment
  • sensation and transduction
  • energy production
  • energy storage
  • biosynthesis
    • proteins
    • lipids
    • carbohydrates
    • nucleic acids
  • intracellular digestion
  • structural integrity
  • cell division
    • mitosis
    • meiosis
  • apoptosis

Cell Differentiation Objective:  Given any specific cell type, you should appreciate how particular differentiated features of structure and function allow the cell to serve its specialized role in the body.  From the beginning, become familiar with the following cell types, any of which may be routinely encountered in a variety of sites within the body.  

    • secretory epithelium
    • absorptive epithelium
    • ciliated epithelium
    • simple squamous epithelium
    • smooth muscle cells
    • skeletal muscle fibers
    • cardiac muscle cells

For an introduction to the basic organization of connective tissue, epithelial tissue, nervous tissue, and muscle tissue, see basic tissue types.

Comments and questions:

SIUC / School of Medicine / Anatomy / David King
Last updated:  2 June 2022 / dgk