1. An Overview of Cells and Cell Research

Understanding the molecular biology of cells is an active area of research that is fundamental to all of the biological sciences. This is true not only from the standpoint of basic science, but also with respect to a growing number of practical applications in agriculture, biotechnology, and medicine. Medical applications provide some particularly exciting examples, with new approaches to prevention and treatment being made possible by an increased understanding of the cellular and molecular basis of many human diseases.

Because cell and molecular biology is a rapidly growing field of research, this chapter will focus on how cells are studied, as well as reviewing some of their basic properties. Appreciating the similarities and differences between cells is particularly important to understanding cell biology. The first section of this chapter therefore discusses both the unity and the diversity of present-day cells in terms of their evolution from a common ancestor. On the one hand, all cells share common fundamental properties that have been conserved throughout evolution. For example, all cells employ DNA as their genetic material, are surrounded by plasma membranes, and use the same basic mechanisms for energy metabolism. On the other hand, present-day cells have evolved a variety of different lifestyles. Many organisms, such as bacteria, amoebas, and yeasts, consist of single cells that are capable of independent self-replication. More complex organisms are composed of collections of cells that function in a coordinated manner, with different cells specialized to perform particular tasks. The human body, for example, is composed of more than 200 different kinds of cells, each specialized for such distinctive functions as memory, sight, movement, and digestion. The diversity exhibited by the many different kinds of cells is striking; for example, consider the differences between bacteria and the cells of the human brain.

The fundamental similarities between different types of cells provide a unifying theme to cell biology, allowing the basic principles learned from experiments with one kind of cell to be extrapolated and generalized to other cell types. Several kinds of cells and organisms are widely used to study different aspects of cell and molecular biology; the second section of this chapter discusses some of the properties of these cells that make them particularly valuable as experimental models. Finally, it is important to recognize that progress in cell biology depends heavily on the availability of experimental tools that allow scientists to make new observations or conduct novel kinds of experiments. This introductory chapter therefore concludes with a discussion of some of the experimental approaches used to study cells, as well as a review of some of the major historical developments that have led to our current understanding of cell structure and function.

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