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The intermediate filaments are the most diverse group of cytoskeletal elements. Several types of fibrous proteins are found in the intermediate filaments. You are probably most familiar with keratin, the fibrous protein that strengthens your hair, nails, and the epidermis of the skin.


As their name implies, microtubules are small hollow tubes. The walls of the microtubule are made of polymerized dimers of α-tubulin and β-tubulin, two globular proteins ( [link] ). With a diameter of about 25 nm, microtubules are the widest components of the cytoskeleton. They help the cell resist compression, provide a track along which vesicles move through the cell, and pull replicated chromosomes to opposite ends of a dividing cell. Like microfilaments, microtubules can dissolve and reform quickly.

The left part of this figure is a molecular model of 13 polymerized dimers of alpha- and beta-tubulin joined together to form a hollow tube. The right part of this image shows the tubulin structure as a ring of spheres connected together.
Microtubules are hollow. Their walls consist of 13 polymerized dimers of α-tubulin and β-tubulin (right image). The left image shows the molecular structure of the tube.

Microtubules are also the structural elements of flagella, cilia, and centrioles (the latter are the two perpendicular bodies of the centrosome). In fact, in animal cells, the centrosome is the microtubule-organizing center. In eukaryotic cells, flagella and cilia are quite different structurally from their counterparts in prokaryotes, as discussed below.

Flagella and cilia

To refresh your memory, flagella (singular = flagellum) are long, hair-like structures that extend from the plasma membrane and are used to move an entire cell (for example, sperm, Euglena ). When present, the cell has just one flagellum or a few flagella. When cilia (singular = cilium) are present, however, many of them extend along the entire surface of the plasma membrane. They are short, hair-like structures that are used to move entire cells (such as paramecia) or substances along the outer surface of the cell (for example, the cilia of cells lining the Fallopian tubes that move the ovum toward the uterus, or cilia lining the cells of the respiratory tract that trap particulate matter and move it toward your nostrils.)

Despite their differences in length and number, flagella and cilia share a common structural arrangement of microtubules called a “9 + 2 array.” This is an appropriate name because a single flagellum or cilium is made of a ring of nine microtubule doublets, surrounding a single microtubule doublet in the center ( [link] ).

This transmission electron micrograph shows a cross section of nine microtubule doublets that form a hollow tube. Another microtubule doublet sits in the center of the tube.
This transmission electron micrograph of two flagella shows the 9 + 2 array of microtubules: nine microtubule doublets surround a single microtubule doublet. (credit: modification of work by Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

You have now completed a broad survey of the components of prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. For a summary of cellular components in prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, see [link] .

Components of Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells
Cell Component Function Present in Prokaryotes? Present in Animal Cells? Present in Plant Cells?
Plasma membrane Separates cell from external environment; controls passage of organic molecules, ions, water, oxygen, and wastes into and out of cell Yes Yes Yes
Cytoplasm Provides turgor pressure to plant cells as fluid inside the central vacuole; site of many metabolic reactions; medium in which organelles are found Yes Yes Yes
Nucleolus Darkened area within the nucleus where ribosomal subunits are synthesized. No Yes Yes
Nucleus Cell organelle that houses DNA and directs synthesis of ribosomes and proteins No Yes Yes
Ribosomes Protein synthesis Yes Yes Yes
Mitochondria ATP production/cellular respiration No Yes Yes
Peroxisomes Oxidizes and thus breaks down fatty acids and amino acids, and detoxifies poisons No Yes Yes
Vesicles and vacuoles Storage and transport; digestive function in plant cells No Yes Yes
Centrosome Unspecified role in cell division in animal cells; source of microtubules in animal cells No Yes No
Lysosomes Digestion of macromolecules; recycling of worn-out organelles No Yes No
Cell wall Protection, structural support and maintenance of cell shape Yes, primarily peptidoglycan No Yes, primarily cellulose
Chloroplasts Photosynthesis No No Yes
Endoplasmic reticulum Modifies proteins and synthesizes lipids No Yes Yes
Golgi apparatus Modifies, sorts, tags, packages, and distributes lipids and proteins No Yes Yes
Cytoskeleton Maintains cell’s shape, secures organelles in specific positions, allows cytoplasm and vesicles to move within cell, and enables unicellular organisms to move independently Yes Yes Yes
Flagella Cellular locomotion Some Some No, except for some plant sperm cells.
Cilia Cellular locomotion, movement of particles along extracellular surface of plasma membrane, and filtration Some Some No

Section summary

The cytoskeleton has three different types of protein elements. From narrowest to widest, they are the microfilaments (actin filaments), intermediate filaments, and microtubules. Microfilaments are often associated with myosin. They provide rigidity and shape to the cell and facilitate cellular movements. Intermediate filaments bear tension and anchor the nucleus and other organelles in place. Microtubules help the cell resist compression, serve as tracks for motor proteins that move vesicles through the cell, and pull replicated chromosomes to opposite ends of a dividing cell. They are also the structural element of centrioles, flagella, and cilia.

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Source:  OpenStax, Cell structure & Function (gpc). OpenStax CNX. Feb 26, 2014 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11583/1.3
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