The cell is the basic functional in a human meaning that it is a self-contained and fully operational living entity. Humans are multicellular organisms with various different types of cells that work together to sustain life. Other non-cellular components in the body include water, macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, lipids), micronutrients (vitamins, minerals) and electrolytes. A collection of cells that function together to perform the same activity is known as tissue. Masses of tissue work collectively to form an organ that performs specific functions in the body. Despite this structural organization, all activity boils down to the cell – a complex unit that makes life possible.

Parts of the Human Cell

The cell contains various structural components to allow it to maintain life which are known as organelles. All the organelles are suspended within a gelatinous matrix, the cytoplasm, which is contained within the cell membrane. One of the few cells in the human body that lacks almost all organelles are the red blood cells.

The main organelles are as follows :

  • cell membrane
  • endoplasmic reticulum
  • Golgi apparatus
  • lysosomes
  • mitochondria
  • nucleus
  • perioxisomes
  • microfilaments and microtubules

Diagram of the human cell illustrating the different parts of the cell.

Cell Membrane

The cell membrane is the outer coating of the cell and contains the cytoplasm, substances within it and the organelle. It is a double-layered membrane composed of proteins and lipids. The lipid molecules on the outer and inner part (lipid bilayer) allow it to selectively transport substances in and out of the cell.

Endoplasmic Reticulum

The endoplasmic reticulum (ER) is a membranous structure that contains a network of tubules and vesicles. Its structure is such that substances can move through it and be kept in isolation from the rest of the cell until the manufacturing processes conducted within are completed. There are two types of endoplasmic reticulum – rough (granular) and smooth (agranular).

  • The rough endoplasmic reticulum (RER / granular ER) contains a combination of proteins and enzymes. These parts of the endoplasmic reticulum contain a number of ribosomes giving it a rough appearance. Its function is to synthesize new proteins.
  • The smooth endoplasmic reticulum (SER / agranular ER) does not have any attached ribosomes. Its function is to synthesize different types of lipids (fats). The smooth ER also plays a role in carbohydrate and drug metabolism.

Golgi Apparatus

The Golgi apparatus is a stacked collection of flat vesicles. It is closely associated with the endoplasmic reticulum in that substances produced in the ER are transported as vesicles and fuses with the Golgi apparatus. In this way, the products from the ER are stored in the Golgi apparatus and converted into different substances that are necessary for the cell’s various functions.


Lysosomes are vesicles that break off from the Golgi apparatus. It varies in size and function depending on the type of cell. Lysosomes contain enzymes that help with the digestion of nutrients in the cell and break down any cellular debris or invading microorganisms like bacteria.

A structure that is similar to a lysosome is the secretory vesicle. It contains enzymes that are not used within the cell but emptied outside of the cell, for example the secretory vesicles of the pancreatic acinar cell release digestive enzymes which help with the digestion of nutrients in the gut.


These organelles are very similar to the lysosomes and contain enzymes that act together in the form of hydrogen peroxide to neutralize substances that may be toxic to the cell. Perioxisomes are formed directly from the endoplasmic reticulum rather than from the Golgi apparatus like lysosomes.


These are the powerhouses of the cell and break down nutrients to yield energy. Apart from producing its own energy, it also produces a high-energy compound called ATP (adenosine triphosphate) which can be used as a simple energy source elsewhere. Mitochondria are composed of two membranous layers – an outer membrane that surrounds the structure and an inner membrane that provides the physical sites of energy production. The inner membrane has many infoldings that form shelves where enzymes attach and oxidize nutrients. The mitochondria also contain DNA which allows it to replicate where and when necessary.


The nucleus is the master control of the cell. It contains genes, collections of DNA, which determines every aspect of human anatomy and physiology. The DNA which is arranged into chromosomes also contains the blueprint specific for each type of cell which allows for replication of the cell. Within the nucleus is an area known as the nucleolus. It is not enclosed by a membrane but is just an accumulation of RNA and proteins within the nucleus. The nucleolus is the site where the ribosomal RNA is transcribed from DNA and assembled.

Microfilaments and Microtubules

Microfilaments and microtubules are rigid protein substances that form the internal skeleton of the cell known as the cytoskeleton. Some of these microtubules also make up the centrioles and mitotic spindles within the cell which are responsible for the division of the cytoplasm when the cell divides. The microtubules are the central component of cilia, small hair-like projections that protrude from the surface of certain cells. It is also the central component of specialized cilia like the tail of the sperm cells which beats in a manner to allow the cell to move in a fluid medium.

Pictures of Different Cells in the Body

Parietal cells of the stomach lining. Wikimedia Commons

Urothelial cells lining the ureters and bladder. Wikimedia Commons

Functions of the Human Cell

The functions of the human cell varies based on the type of cell and its location in the human body. All the organelles work together to keep the cell alive and allow it to carry out its specific function. Sometimes these organelles are highly specialized and can vary in size, shape and number.

The organelles are the most basic functional units but it cannot exist and operate without the cell as a whole. Its functions include intake of nutrients and other substances, processing of these compounds, production of new substances, cell replication and energy production. In specialized cells that need to be motile, like sperm cells, tail-like projections allow for cellular locomotion.

The function of each organelle has already been discussed but is worth considering in summary.

  • The cell membrane allows substances to enter and leave the cell. While certain substance like oxygen can easily diffuse through the cell membrane, others have to actively transported through the process of endocytosis. Small particles are transported by the process of pinocytosis while larger particles are moved by the process of phagocytosis. These functions can become highly specialized to allow cells to perform specific activities, like the macrophages that phagocytose invading bacteria to neutralize it.
  • Small and large substances that do not dissolve in the cytoplasm are contained within vesicles. Lysosomes attach to the vesicles and digest this material.
  • The endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus synthesize different substances like protein and fats as required by the cell or designated according to its specific function. It utilizes basic nutrient molecules that are either dissolved in the cytoplasm or specific substances contained within vesicles.
  • Some nutrients, specifically carbohydrates, are transported to the mitochondria where it is broken down further to yield energy. In the process, high-energy molecules known as ATP (adenosine triphosphate) are manufactured and provide energy for other organelles.
  • The genetic material housed in the nucleus provides the blueprint necessary for the production of specific compounds by the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus. The genes also help the cell replicate and codes for the formation of new cells.
  • Secretory vesicles store some of the enzymes and other specialized substances formed by the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi apparatus. These stored substances are released from the cell when necessary in order to complete various functions that allow the body to function as a whole.

Article reviewed by Dr. Greg. Last updated on June 4, 2011