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Chemistry LibreTexts

16.1: Energy and the Living Cell

  • Page ID
    152238
  • Learning Objective

    • Know the similarities and differences between plant and animal cells.
    • Know the functions of the major parts of plant and animal cells.

    Biochemistry, sometimes called biological chemistry, is the study of chemical processes within and relating to living organisms.[1] Biochemical processes give rise to the complexity of life. ] Biochemistry focuses on understanding how biological molecules give rise to the processes that occur within living cells and between cells,[3] which in turn relates greatly to the study and understanding of tissues, organs, and organism structure and function.[4] Much of biochemistry deals with the structures, functions and interactions of biological macromolecules, such as proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and lipids, which provide the structure of cells and perform many of the functions associated with life.[6] The mechanisms by which cells harness energy from their environment via chemical reactions are known as metabolism. The findings of biochemistry are applied primarily in medicine, nutrition, and agriculture. In medicine, biochemists investigate the causes and cures of diseases.[8] In nutrition, they study how to maintain health wellness and study the effects of nutritional deficiencies.[9] In agriculture, biochemists investigate soil and fertilizers, and try to discover ways to improve crop cultivation, crop storage and pest control.

    The major parts of plant and animal cells (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)) include the plasma membrane, nucleus, ribosomes, and mitochondria.

    The plasma membrane is made up of a phospholipid bilayer with embedded proteins that separates the internal contents of the cell from its surrounding environment. A phospholipid is a lipid molecule composed of two fatty acid chains, a glycerol backbone, and a phosphate group. The plasma membrane regulates the passage of some substances, such as organic molecules, ions, and water, preventing the passage of some to maintain internal conditions, while actively bringing in or removing others. Other compounds move passively across the membrane.

    Nucleus

    Typically, the nucleus is the most prominent organelle in a cell . The nucleus (plural = nuclei) houses the cell’s DNA in the form of chromatin and directs the synthesis of ribosomes and proteins.

    Ribosomes

    Ribosomes are the cellular structures responsible for protein synthesis. When viewed through an electron microscope, free ribosomes appear as either clusters or single tiny dots floating freely in the cytoplasm. Ribosomes may be attached to either the cytoplasmic side of the plasma membrane or the cytoplasmic side of the endoplasmic reticulum. Electron microscopy has shown that ribosomes consist of large and small subunits. Ribosomes are enzyme complexes that are responsible for protein synthesis.

    Because protein synthesis is essential for all cells, ribosomes are found in practically every cell, although they are smaller in prokaryotic cells. They are particularly abundant in immature red blood cells for the synthesis of hemoglobin, which functions in the transport of oxygen throughout the body.

    Mitochondria

    Mitochondria (singular = mitochondrion) are often called the “powerhouses” or “energy factories” of a cell because they are responsible for making adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cell’s main energy-carrying molecule. The formation of ATP from the breakdown of glucose is known as cellular respiration. In keeping with our theme of form following function, it is important to point out that muscle cells have a very high concentration of mitochondria because muscle cells need a lot of energy to contract.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): This figure shows (a) a typical animal cell and (b) a typical plant cell.

    Animal Cells versus Plant Cells

    Despite their fundamental similarities, there are some striking differences between animal and plant cells. Animal cells have centrioles, centrosomes (discussed under the cytoskeleton), and lysosomes, whereas plant cells do not. Plant cells have a cell wall (made of cellulose), chloroplasts, plasmodesmata, and plastids used for storage, and a large central vacuole, whereas animal cells do not.

    Energy in Biological Systems

    Green plants are capable of synthesizing glucose (C6H12O6) from carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) by using solar energy in the process known as photosynthesis:

    \[\ce{6CO_2 + 6H_2O} + \text{686 kcal} \rightarrow \ce{C_6H_{12}O_6 + 6O_2} \label{\(\PageIndex{1}\)}\]

    (The 686 kcal come from solar energy.) Chloroplasts function in photosynthesis and can be found in cells of plants and algae. The chloroplasts contain a green pigment called chlorophyll, which captures the energy of sunlight for photosynthesis. Plants can use the glucose for energy or convert it to larger carbohydrates, such as starch or cellulose. Starch provides energy for later use, perhaps as nourishment for a plant’s seeds, while cellulose is the structural material of plants. We can gather and eat the parts of a plant that store energy—seeds, roots, tubers, and fruits—and use some of that energy ourselves. Carbohydrates are also needed for the synthesis of nucleic acids and many proteins and lipids. This is the major difference between plants and animals: Plants are able to make their own food, like glucose, whereas animals must rely on other organisms for their organic compounds or food source.

    Summary

    The major parts of plant and animal cells (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)) include the plasma membrane, nucleus, ribosomes, and mitochondria.

    Animal cells have centrioles, centrosomes (discussed under the cytoskeleton), and lysosomes, whereas plant cells do not.

    Plant cells have a cell wall (made of cellulose), chloroplasts, plasmodesmata, and plastids used for storage, and a large central vacuole, whereas animal cells do not.

    Green plants are capable of synthesizing glucose (C6H12O6) from carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) by using solar energy in the process known as photosynthesis.

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