Cytology: An Introduction

As human beings are social creatures, they live in a social environment. If we look around us, we can see mainly two types of things in the environment. One is living things & another is non-living things. Living things are those which possess life. Now, what is life?

It’s not easy to define life. But scientist J.D. Burnel gave the definition of life. That is:

“Life is a self-regulated, self-determinated very complex physiochemical system, which is able to use the material and energy from the environment for its growth, development and reproduction through a series of biochemical reactions.”

Every living organism is linked up by cell or cells. But there are some living organisms that are acellular. Examples are:

  • Virus- made up of nucleic acid & protein.
  • Prion- made up of misfolded protein.
  • Viroid- made up of only nucleic acid (RNA).
  • Plasmid.
Figure: Some acellular organisms.

When these organisms stay outside of any living system, they act as chemicals only. But inside of any living system, they act as living organisms.

Robert Hook, an architect and the first curator of the Royal Society of London, in 1665 described cork (plant bark tissue) & other cells and introduced the term “cell“. The word “cell” derived from the Greek word ‘kytos‘ which means ’empty place’.

Why it is difficult to define cell?

  • There is no typical cell. There are many kinds of cell which are different in structure or function or both. Example: Human muscle cell & white blood cell (WBC) are different in both structure and function.
Human-cells-types-include-blood-cell-muscle-cell-neuron-epithelial-cell.jpg (708×589)
Figure: Different types of cells in human body


  • There is a very little knowledge regarding the fine structure & ultra structure of cell & cellular organelles.
  • Living cells are not stable. Balance is maintained by continuous stability & dynamism. If balance is stopped, life is stopped.

So, when we define cell, we must take these limitations into consideration.

Definition of cell

Cell is almost an independent structural and functional unit of life which is at least surrounded by a membrane and originated from a pre-existing one.


Cytology is a branch of biology that deals with the physical & chemical structure and biological functions of cells & cellular organelles. It also describes the development, differentiation and origin of a new cell from a pre-existing one by division.

Cell theory or cell concept

  • Matthias Jacob Scheiden, a German professor of botany, is credited  with proposing the cell theory, together with Theodor Schwann, a German professor of anatomy. Schleiden’s cell theory states that the cell is a unit of biological organization. After that, Schwann began work with Schleiden’s cell formation theory. He applied Schleiden’s discoveries in plants to animals and invented the term cell theory in 1838. However, the term is generally attributed to Schleiden & Schwann and dated 1839. Schwann refined this theory in the following way:
  1. The cell is the smallest building element of a multicellular organism and as a unit is itself an elementary organism.
  2. Each cell in a multicellular organism has a specific task to accomplish and represents a working unit.
  3. A cell can only be produced from another cell by cell division.

This concept of the cell as a general unit of life and as a common basis for the vital phenomena in both the animal & plant kingdoms was immediately and universally accepted.

  • Rudolf  Ludwig Carl Virchow, a German professor of pathological anatomy, confirmed the principle that cells arise only from pre-existing cells. It is also reffered to as the theory of cell lineage. His observations gave Schleiden & Schwann’s cell theory its impact in terms of heredity and development, for if present cells have come from pre-existing cells, then all cells trace their ancestry back to the first cells in an unbroken line of descent.

The most ancient cell

Figure: Kakabekia umbellata petrographic specimen
(3840 times magnification)
Figure: Kakabekia barghoorniana (3840 times magnification)
  • Kingdom: Plantae
  • Phylum: Plantaeincertaesedis
  • Class: Unclassified
  • Order: Unclassified
  • Family: Unclassified
  • Genus: Kakabekia
  • Species: Kakabekia barghoorniana

The name Kakabekia references the region in Ontario where the microfossil relative Kakabekia umbellata was first discovered. The name barghoorniana refers to the scientist, Barghoorn, who discovered the microfossil. Kakabekia is not well differentiated phylogenetically, but it is believed to be the modern descendent of one of the first Eukaryotes in the Plant kingdom.

In 1965, a Harvard palentologist Elso Barghoorn was working in Canada’s rock field called Gunflint Range Chert that date back to the middle Precambrian period in what would have likely been shallow lakes. There he discovered some fossils of the simplest organisms which had only a bulb like structure and some protoplasmic strands. He named it Kakabekia umbellata and published it in a British journal called ‘Nature’.

One year later in 1966, Sagle and Gyomaro discovered a simple structured living organism in ammoniated soil beside British port which appeared nearly identical to the microfossil of Kakabekia umbellata. In the same year, they published the occurrence of the simplest living organism and named it after Barghoorn as Kakabekia barghoorniana.

  • Kakabekia cannot be grown without ammonia.
  • Structurally, the organism has a mantle with multiple rays that forms the top of the “umbrella” with a slender stalk leading to a sphrerical bulb.
  • The organism is oxygen indifferent, with few heme enzymes and no phenol oxidases.
  • The species has absolutely no ability to store lipid or polysaccharide.
  • Kakabekia appears to preferentially utilize glucose as a carbon and energy source but it has the ability to function without; likely through photosynthetic machinery.


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About Khaleda Akter Shompa

Khaleda Akter Shompa
Currently studying in 2nd year at Department of Botany, University of Dhaka. Wants to learn multiple things for the development of skill. A good listener also.

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