Types of Cells with Functions and Examples

All living organisms, including humans, animals, and plants, are made up of cells. Cells are the fundamental units of life, serving as the structural, functional, and biological building blocks of all living organisms.

Cells are microscopic structures that come in various shapes, ranging from spherical and cylindrical to cuboidal. While microscopic life forms are often composed of a single cell, larger organisms consist of millions of cells. Cells contain the hereditary material of organisms which is necessary for the growth, development, and functioning of living beings. Living cells can perform metabolic reactions, produce energy, grow, and divide.

Types of Cells
Types of Cells

The discovery of cells began with Robert Hooke’s observation of dead plant cell walls in cork under a microscope in 1665. Later in 1674, Anton van Leeuwenhoek used a more powerful compound microscope and observed cells with higher magnification. He noticed movement in these cells, leading him to conclude that these microscopic entities were alive. He termed them “animalcules” based on his observations. Later, in 1833, Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist, described the nucleus present in the cells of orchids. These observations collectively contributed to our understanding of the basic building blocks of life and helped in the advancements of cell biology.

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What is a Cell Theory?

The cell theory is a fundamental concept in biology stating that all organisms are made up of basic units called cells. The cell theory states that all living organisms are composed of one or more cells, that the cell is the basic unit of life, and that all cells come from preexisting cells. Scientists such as Matthias Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, and Rudolf Virchow contributed to the formulation of cell theory. 

Schleiden and Schwann first introduced the concept that living cells are the fundamental building blocks of life. Schleiden proposed the theory for plant cells, while Schwann extended it to all living organisms, including animals. Later, Rudolf Virchow further emphasized cell theory in his work. He stated that all cells come from other cells. Virchow’s contributions solidified the cell theory.

The modern cell theory builds on the original cell theory proposed by Schleiden, Schwann, and Virchow. The modern cell theory states:

  • All living things are made up of cells.
  • The cell is the structural and functional unit of all living things.
  • All cells come from pre-existing cells through division. 
  • Cells carry genetic information, which is passed from cell to cell during cell division.
  • All cells have the same chemical composition.
  • All life processes, including metabolism and biochemistry, occur within cells.

Types of Cells

Cells can be broadly categorized into two types: prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells. Each type contains unique structures and functions, contributing to the diversity of living organisms.

Prokaryotic Cells

  • Prokaryotic organisms are simple, single-celled microorganisms, including archaea, bacteria, and cyanobacteria. 
  • Prokaryotic cells lack a distinct nucleus and other membrane-bound organelles found in eukaryotic cells. 
  • They lack a true nucleus. Instead, the genetic material in prokaryotes is dispersed throughout the cell’s cytoplasm.
  • Prokaryotic cells are enveloped by a plasma membrane that separates the cell’s interior from its external environment.
  • A rigid cell wall surrounds the cell membrane, providing structural support and shape to the cell. The composition of the cell wall can vary between different prokaryotic species.
  • Prokaryotic cells are smaller and more primitive in structure. They are characterized by their simplicity.
  • Prokaryotic cells carry their genetic information in the form of a single circular DNA molecule, forming the chromosome. The genetic material in prokaryotic cells is located in the central region called nucleoid. Unlike eukaryotic cells, there is no protective nuclear membrane surrounding the nucleoid.
  • Many prokaryotes contain small, circular DNA called plasmids. These are extra-chromosomal DNA elements that often contain genes that provide specific advantages, such as antibiotic resistance.

Types of prokaryotic cells

There are two main types of prokaryotic cells: bacteria and archaea.

1. Bacteria

  • Bacteria are simple, prokaryotic cells that come in various shapes.
  • Bacterial cells consist of a cell membrane, cytoplasm, ribosomes, plasmids, and a single circular DNA molecule located in the nucleoid. Some bacteria also have additional structures like flagella to facilitate movement and pili for attachment.
  • Bacteria have a rigid cell wall made of a polymer called peptidoglycan, which provides structural support and protection.
  • In terms of size and shape, bacterial cells vary widely. A common example, Escherichia coli, is rod-shaped and measures about 2 – 3 µm in length and 1 µm in width. 
  • However, bacteria can exhibit diverse shapes, including spherical, filamentous, or spirally twisted forms. These different shapes contribute to the vast diversity of bacterial species found in various environments.

2. Archaea

  • Archaea are a group of microorganisms belonging to the domain Archaea, distinct from both bacteria and eukaryotes. 
  • Like bacteria, archaea are prokaryotes that lack a true nucleus and membrane-bound organelles.
  • Archaeal cells also have diverse shapes, including spheres, rods, and spirals.
  • They possess a cell wall, similar to bacteria, but the composition of their cell wall is different from bacterial cell walls.
  • Many archaea are extremophiles, meaning they thrive in harsh environmental conditions such as hot springs, acidic lakes, salt flats, and deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
  • Like bacteria, archaea have a single circular chromosome but have unique DNA-binding proteins, distinguishing them from bacteria.

Eukaryotic Cells

  • Eukaryotic organisms include a wide range of organisms such as plants, fungi, protozoans, and animals.
  • Eukaryotic cells have a well-defined nucleus, where the genetic material is enclosed. The nucleus is surrounded by a nuclear membrane, which separates it from the cytoplasm.
  • They also contain various membrane-bound organelles, each performing specific functions. These include mitochondria for energy production, the endoplasmic reticulum for protein transport, the Golgi apparatus for sorting and packaging of proteins, and in plant cells, chloroplasts for photosynthesis.
  • Eukaryotes include both unicellular and multicellular forms. Single-celled eukaryotes, like certain protists, carry out all life processes within a single cell.
  • Multicellular eukaryotes, on the other hand, organize into specialized tissues and organs, performing complex physiological functions and interactions with their environment.
  • Eukaryotes are differentiated from prokaryotes by the presence of internal membranes. These internal membranes, forming organelles, create distinct compartments within eukaryotic cells. 

Types of eukaryotic cells

Eukaryotic cells come in different types, each specialized for specific functions. Some types of eukaryotic cells are:

1. Animal Cells

  • Animal cells are the basic building blocks of animal tissues and organs. They perform various functions, including energy production, metabolism, and structural support.
  • Animal cells are eukaryotic cells with a nucleus, cytoplasm, and organelles such as mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, and lysosomes. They are enclosed by a plasma membrane.
  • Animal cells do not have cell wall and chloroplast.

2. Plant Cells

  • Plant cells have a nucleus, cytoplasm, and organelles similar to animal cells. In addition, they have unique structures such as a cell wall made of cellulose, chloroplasts for photosynthesis, and a central vacuole filled with cell sap.
  • Plant cells are the fundamental units of plants. They produce energy through photosynthesis, provide structural support, and store nutrients and water in the vacuole.

3. Fungal Cells

  • Fungal cells, similar to plant cells, have a nucleus, cytoplasm, and various organelles. They also have a cell wall, but it is made of chitin.
  • Fungal cells are involved in nutrient absorption and reproduction. Fungi play important roles in decomposing organic matter and forming symbiotic relationships with other organisms.
  • Fungal cells include yeasts, molds, and mushrooms.

4. Protist Cells

  • Protist cells represent a diverse group of eukaryotic microorganisms. They can have structures like cilia, flagella, and pseudopodia for movement. Some protists have complex organelles similar to animal or plant cells.
  • Protists can be unicellular or multicellular and may have animal-like, plant-like, or fungal-like behaviors. Some protists are photosynthetic, while others are parasitic or predatory.

Types of Human Cells

The human body contains hundreds of cell types, each with its own specific functions and characteristics. While there are numerous cell types, some of the most common ones play vital roles in supporting various physiological processes. Some of these major cells are:

Blood cells

Blood is a fluid connective tissue that has both cellular and liquid components. Plasma is the liquid component containing water, electrolytes, proteins, hormones, and waste products. The cellular components of blood include red blood cells (erythrocytes), white blood cells (leukocytes), and platelets (thrombocytes). Red blood cells facilitate the transport of oxygen from the lungs to tissues and carry carbon dioxide back. White blood cells are essential for immune responses, defending against pathogens. Platelets play an important role in the process of blood clotting.

Bone cells

Bones are a significant component of the skeletal system. Within bone tissue, three primary types of cells play specific roles in bone formation and maintenance: 

  • Osteoclasts are large cells that are responsible for breaking down bone tissue. During bone healing processes, osteoclasts play a crucial role in decomposing bone material.
  • Osteoblasts are cells that regulate the mineralization of bone and contribute to the formation of new bone tissue. Osteoblasts produce osteoid, an organic substance rich in collagen, which forms the framework of the bone matrix. 
  • Osteocytes are mature bone cells derived from osteoblasts that play a role in bone formation and are vital for maintaining calcium balance in the bone tissue. 

Cancer cells

Cancer cells are abnormal cells characterized by uncontrolled growth and division. Cancer cells can develop from genetic mutations caused by exposure to various factors, including chemicals, radiation, ultraviolet light, and cancer-causing viruses. Understanding the specific characteristics of cancer cells is important for developing effective methods for diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

Cartilage cells

Cartilage is a connective tissue characterized by its solid matrix and lack of blood supply. Cartilage provides structural support to many parts of the body. There are three main types of cartilage cells.

  • Chondrocytes are mature cartilage cells that maintain the cartilage tissue by regulating the production and maintenance of the extracellular matrix.
  • Chondroblasts are cells responsible for the initial formation of cartilage. They produce the extracellular matrix, contributing to the strength and flexibility of cartilage.
  • Chondroclasts are involved in the controlled breakdown of old or damaged cartilage, contributing to the remodeling of cartilage.

Endothelial cells

Endothelial cells are a specialized type of cells that form the inner lining of the cardiovascular system and lymphatic system. Endothelial cells are present in various organs, such as the brain, lungs, skin, and heart, where they contribute to the structure and function of the vascular network. Endothelial cells control the movement of macromolecules, gases, and fluids between the blood and surrounding tissues. Endothelial cells also produce substances that help manage blood pressure. 

Fat cells

Fat cells, also known as adipocytes, are an important cellular component of adipose tissue, also known as body fat. Fat cells store energy in the form of triglycerides. When the body needs extra energy, such as during fasting or increased physical activity, fat cells release stored triglycerides. Fat cells also play an important role in hormone production, metabolism regulation, and overall homeostasis. 

Female egg cell

Egg cells are the female reproductive cells that play a central role in sexual reproduction and the formation of new organisms. The formation of egg cells is called oogenesis. It begins during fetal development and continues throughout a woman’s reproductive years. The primary function of the egg cell is to fuse with a sperm cell during fertilization which results in the formation of a zygote. Fertilization combines the genetic material from both the egg and the sperm, leading to the formation of a genetically unique individual. 

Sperm cells

Sperm cells are the male reproductive cells responsible for fertilizing the female egg and initiating the process of sexual reproduction. One of the distinctive features of sperm cells is the presence of a long tail called a flagellum which allows sperm to move through the female reproductive tract toward the egg. The midpiece of the sperm cell is packed with mitochondria which provide the energy needed for the movement of the tail. The head of the sperm contains structures called acrosomes which release enzymes that help the sperm to penetrate the layers surrounding the egg. Sperm cells are formed through a process called spermatogenesis. 

Muscle cells

Muscle cells group together to form muscle tissue which is responsible for all bodily movements. The three types of muscle cells are:

  • Skeletal muscle cells facilitate voluntary movement and are attached to bones.
  • Cardiac muscle cells are found in the heart and are responsible for involuntary contractions.
  • Smooth muscle cells form the walls of various organs and are involved in involuntary processes.

Nerve cells

Nerve cells, or neurons, are the fundamental units of the nervous system, responsible for transmitting signals between the brain, spinal cord, and other body organs through nerve impulses. Structurally, neurons consist of a central cell body containing the nucleus, cytoplasm, and organelles. Additionally, they have extensions known as axons and dendrites, which are finger-like projections extending from the cell body. Axons transmit signals away from the cell body, while dendrites receive signals from other neurons. 

Pancreatic cells

The pancreas serves a dual role as an exocrine and endocrine organ. In its exocrine function, the pancreas produces cells that secrete digestive enzymes that play a crucial role in breaking down proteins, carbohydrates, and fats during digestion. Simultaneously, the pancreas functions as an endocrine organ. These endocrine cells release hormones directly into the bloodstream to regulate blood glucose levels and other metabolic processes. 

Skin cells

The skin has three main layers. The top layer is the epidermis, made up of flat, squamous epithelial cells. Below the epidermis is the dermis, which provides structural support. The deepest layer is the subcutaneous layer. The skin has diverse functions, serving as a protective barrier against physical damage, dehydration, and harmful microbes. 

Stem cells

Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that are capable of developing into various specialized cell types. Stem cells begin as unspecialized cells which do not have a specific function, and possess the ability to differentiate into specialized cells that make up various organs and tissues in the body. This allows them to potentially develop into cells of the heart, liver, skin, or any other tissue. Stem cells can undergo numerous divisions and replicate themselves. Stem cells have potential therapeutic applications.


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About Author

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Sanju Tamang

Sanju Tamang completed her Bachelor's (B.Tech) in Biotechnology from Kantipur Valley College, Lalitpur, Nepal. She is interested in genetics, microbiome, and their roles in human health. She is keen to learn more about biological technologies that improve human health and quality of life.

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