Animal Cells versus Plant Cells
At this point, you know that each eukaryotic cell has a plasma membrane, cytoplasm, a nucleus, ribosomes, mitochondria, peroxisomes, and in some, vacuoles, but there are some striking differences between animal and plant cells. While both animal and plant cells have microtubule organizing centers (MTOCs), animal cells also have centrioles associated with the MTOC: a complex we call the centrosome. Animal cells each have a centrosome and lysosomes; whereas, most plant cells do not. Plant cells have a cell wall, chloroplasts and other specialized plastids, and a large central vacuole; whereas, animal cells do not.
The centrosome is a microtubule-organizing center found near the nuclei of animal cells. It contains a pair of centrioles, two structures that lie perpendicular to each other (Figure). Each centriole is a cylinder of nine triplets of microtubules.
The centrosome (the organelle where all microtubules originate) replicates itself before a cell divides, and the centrioles appear to have some role in pulling the duplicated chromosomes to opposite ends of the dividing cell. However, the centriole's exact function in cell division isn’t clear, because cells that have had the centrosome removed can still divide, and plant cells, which lack centrosomes, are capable of cell division.
Animal cells have another set of organelles that most plant cells do not: lysosomes. The lysosomes are the cell’s “garbage disposal.” In plant cells, the digestive processes take place in vacuoles. Enzymes within the lysosomes aid in breaking down proteins, polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids, and even worn-out organelles. These enzymes are active at a much lower pH than the cytoplasm's. Therefore, the pH within lysosomes is more acidic than the cytoplasm's pH. Many reactions that take place in the cytoplasm could not occur at a low pH, so again, the advantage of compartmentalizing the eukaryotic cell into organelles is apparent.
The Cell Wall
If you examine Figure, the plant cell diagram, you will see a structure external to the plasma membrane. This is the cell wall, a rigid covering that protects the cell, provides structural support, and gives shape to the cell. Fungal and some protistan cells also have cell walls. While the prokaryotic cell walls' chief component is peptidoglycan, the major organic molecule in the plant (and some protists') cell wall is cellulose (Figure), a polysaccharide comprised of glucose units. Have you ever noticed that when you bite into a raw vegetable, like celery, it crunches? That’s because you are tearing the celery cells' rigid cell walls with your teeth.
Like the mitochondria, chloroplasts have their own DNA and ribosomes, but chloroplasts have an entirely different function. Chloroplasts are plant cell organelles that carry out photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the series of reactions that use carbon dioxide, water, and light energy to make glucose and oxygen. This is a major difference between plants and animals. Plants (autotrophs) are able to make their own food, like sugars, while animals (heterotrophs) must ingest their food.
Like mitochondria, chloroplasts have outer and inner membranes, but within the space enclosed by a chloroplast’s inner membrane is a set of interconnected and stacked fluid-filled membrane sacs we call thylakoids (Figure). Each thylakoid stack is a granum (plural = grana). We call the fluid enclosed by the inner membrane that surrounds the grana the stroma.
The chloroplasts contain a green pigment, chlorophyll, which captures the light energy that drives the reactions of photosynthesis. Like plant cells, photosynthetic protists also have chloroplasts. Some bacteria perform photosynthesis, but their chlorophyll is not relegated to an organelle.
EndosymbiosisWe have mentioned that both mitochondria and chloroplasts contain DNA and ribosomes. Have you wondered why? Strong evidence points to endosymbiosis as the explanation.
Symbiosis is a relationship in which organisms from two separate species depend on each other for their survival. Endosymbiosis (endo- = “within”) is a mutually beneficial relationship in which one organism lives inside the other. Endosymbiotic relationships abound in nature. We have already mentioned that microbes that produce vitamin K live inside the human gut. This relationship is beneficial for us because we are unable to synthesize vitamin K. It is also beneficial for the microbes because they are protected from other organisms and from drying out, and they receive abundant food from the environment of the large intestine.
Scientists have long noticed that bacteria, mitochondria, and chloroplasts are similar in size. We also know that bacteria have DNA and ribosomes, just like mitochondria and chloroplasts. Scientists believe that host cells and bacteria formed an endosymbiotic relationship when the host cells ingested both aerobic and autotrophic bacteria (cyanobacteria) but did not destroy them. Through many millions of years of evolution, these ingested bacteria became more specialized in their functions, with the aerobic bacteria becoming mitochondria and the autotrophic bacteria becoming chloroplasts.
The Central Vacuole
Previously, we mentioned vacuoles as essential components of plant cells. If you look at Figureb, you will see that plant cells each have a large central vacuole that occupies most of the cell's area. The central vacuole plays a key role in regulating the cell’s concentration of water in changing environmental conditions. Have you ever noticed that if you forget to water a plant for a few days, it wilts? That’s because as the water concentration in the soil becomes lower than the water concentration in the plant, water moves out of the central vacuoles and cytoplasm. As the central vacuole shrinks, it leaves the cell wall unsupported. This loss of support to the plant's cell walls results in the wilted appearance.
The central vacuole also supports the cell's expansion. When the central vacuole holds more water, the cell becomes larger without having to invest considerable energy in synthesizing new cytoplasm.