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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: May 2010

1 - The cell: fundamental unit of developmental systems

Summary

For the biologist the cell is the basic unit of life. Its functions may depend on physics and chemistry but it is the functions themselves – DNA replication, the transcription and processing of RNA molecules, the synthesis of proteins, lipids, and polysaccharides and their building blocks, protein modification and secretion, the selective transport of molecules across bounding membranes, the extraction of energy from nutrients, cell locomotion and division – that occupy the attention of the life scientist (Fig. 1.1). These functions have no direct counterparts in the nonliving world.

For the physicist the cell represents a complex material system made up of numerous subsystems (e.g., organelles, such as mitochondria, vesicles, nucleus, endoplasmic reticulum, etc.), interacting through discrete but interconnected biochemical modules (e.g., glycolysis, the Krebs cycle, signaling pathways, etc.) embedded in a partly organized, partly liquid medium (cytoplasm) surrounded by a lipid-based membrane. Tissues are even more complex physically – they are made up of cells bound to one another by direct adhesive interactions or via still another medium (which may be fluid or solid) known as the “extracellular matrix.” These components all have their own physical characteristics (elasticity, viscosity, etc.), which eventually contribute to those of the cell itself and to the tissues they comprise. To decipher the working of even an isolated cell by physical methods is clearly a daunting task.

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