Issue 13 | January 2011

The Cell

***Articles reviewed and updated in September 2015***

The cell is the building block of life. Each of us starts from a single cell, a zygote, and grows into a complex organism made of trillions of cells. In this issue, we explore what we know – and what we don’t yet know – about the cells that are the basis of us all and how they reproduce, grow, move, communicate and die.

Browse through the individual articles and check out our activities and lesson ideas. This issue was first published in 2011; in 2015, all of the individual resources were reviewed and updated for accuracy and currency. Please note, however, that the PDF of the original 2011 issue has not been updated.

Beginning and basics

Introducing the cell

Join us as we explore the building block of life – the cell

Finding your way around the cell

This annotated diagram shows you what goes where in a cell

All the small things

Not all cells are as complex as the animal cell

Mind your membranes

Emma Dixon takes a closer look at the cell membrane

Get yourself connected

Cells need to interact with their neighbours

Inside the cell

The inside of a cell is a scene of constant motion

Working together

Cellular organelles work together

One, two or many?

Find out which cells inside you have more than one nucleus

Cells within cells

Were some organelles originally bacteria?

Who’s in control?

Your cells contain the same genome but different genes are in use

Dividing we stand

Ellie Patten explores the stages and importance of mitosis and meiosis

No limits?

Find out more about cell division

Seeing is believing

A short history of observing cells since the invention of the microscope

The Cell poster

The world inside us, as a classroom poster

Cells and their surroundings

A society of cells

How cells communicate to keep your body functioning normally

Exploring the matrix

How cells communicate with the matrix around them

Researching membrane proteins

Why researchers study membrane proteins

Mind your membranes

Emma Dixon takes a closer look at the cell membrane

Get yourself connected

Cells need to interact with their neighbours

Passing on the message

How cells process and pass on signals

Communication breakdown

Why problems in cell signalling can be bad for your health

On the move

How proteins keep cells together

Animation: The involvement of cells in hearing

Watch our animation exploring how cells help you to hear

Life and death

The life expectancy of the cell

The lifespans of different cells vary greatly

Building your brain

Researchers are trying to discover if our brains can grow new cells

Under development

The tens of trillions of cells that make up a human develop from a single cell

New cells for old

The age of female eggs and male sperm can be very different

Waste disposal

Cells need to get rid of their unwanted parts and so they have waste disposal systems

Getting on a bit

Find out the tell-tale signs that show a cell is ageing

So long, cells

The cells in our bodies can die in different ways – an important one is apoptosis, or ‘programmed’ death

Stem cells and development

Stem cells

What do scientists mean when they talk about stem cells? Find out

Using stem cells

Find out why stem cells hold huge potential for treating diseases

You seem different

How different cell types are specialised for the role they play in our bodies

This way up

Find out why the direction in which cells face is important for their development and correct functioning

Getting some culture

Why growing cells in the lab for research is as much art as science

More, and bigger

Find out how human organs grow

Lesson idea: Stem cell discussion

A lesson plan to get students to consider the implications of stem cell research and debate future technologies

Imaging techniques

Seeing is believing

A short history of observing cells since the invention of the microscope

Cells under the microscope images

A key way of visualising cells is by using electron microscopy. We’ve chosen five different micrographs featuring different organelles and cell components 

Video: Working with cells

Watch this video to see how to feed, grow and monitor cells in the lab

Video: Light microscopy

Watch a video about capturing images with a light microscope

Video: Electron microscopy

Watch a video that explains the process of scanning electron microscopy

Video: Confocal and multiphoton microscopy

Watch a video that explains how to use confocal and multiphoton microscopy to create images

Nerve cells images

We’ve chosen these images of nerve cells to show how some of the cells found in your eyes and brain can be visualised with different techniques

Cell division images

A gallery of images to show what happens during the cell division (or M phase) of the cell cycle, which consists of mitosis and cytokinesis

Bone cells images

We’ve chosen these images of bone cells, including osteocytes and osteoblasts, to show how these cells can be visualised with different techniques

Blood cells images

We’ve chosen these images of blood cells to show how they can be visualised with different techniques

Ethical questions

Using stem cells

Find out why stem cells hold huge potential for treating diseases

Umbilical stem cells

Why using umbilical cord stem cells for research could raise fewer ethical issues than using embryonic stem cells

Induced pluripotent stem cells

What would it mean for future medical treatments if scientists could ‘reset’ adult stem cells to give them pluripotency?

It takes three, baby

What is mitochondrial donation – a process sometimes said to create ‘three-parent babies’ – and what does it involve?

Historical aspects

The history of cell imaging

Browse our gallery of historical and modern images exploring the history of cell imaging

Quick guide to HeLa cells

HeLa cells were first grown in a lab in 1951 – find out what they are and how they are used in scientific experiments

Where did cells come from?

A brief history of where the cells which make up our bodies come from

Snapshots of the stem cell story

A timeline of key events in the story of stem cell science

Real Voices interviews

Real Voices interview: Andrew Evered

Meet Andrew, a cytologist (a scientist who screens cells for cancer)

Real Voices interview: Spike Walker

Meet Spike, a prolific micrographer (someone who takes photos through microscopes)

Real Voices interview: Olly Rofix

An interview with sailor Olly Rofix about the stem cell therapy he has had to treat his leukaemia

Q&A with Marc Quinn

Q&A with renowned artist Marc Quinn, who has used his own cells in some of his work

Q&A with Rebecca Skloot

Q&A with Rebecca Skloot, author of 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

Activities and lesson ideas

Lesson idea: Hearing is believing

Teachers’ notes for the Hearing is Believing lesson plan

Further resources and activities on cells

The Wellcome Trust has funded many organisations that produce the following activities and resources to engage and educate young people about cellular processes

Fast Facts

Each issue of 'Big Picture' comes with a sprinkling of Fast Facts, fascinating snippets of information on the topic covered.

Browse through all of our Fast Facts indexed by topic