Plant Cells vs. Animal Cells (With Diagrams)

Updated on August 30, 2018
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Glen is a professional writer and illustrator from Cape Cod who writes on an array of subjects including science, history, music, and more.

Onion cells.
Onion cells. | Source

What Are Cells?

Cells have often been referred to as "the building blocks of life," and indeed they are.

All forms of life, from simple bacteria to human beings, are made up of cells. What is remarkable is that, despite their differences in appearance, plant and animal life are made up of cells that are the same in most respects.

In both animals and plants, cells generally become specialized to perform certain functions. Nerve cells, bone cells and liver cells, for example, all develop in ways that enable them to better perform their specific duties.

The most important structures of plant and animal cells are shown in the diagrams below, which provide a clear illustration of how much these cells have in common. The significant differences between plant and animal cells are also shown, and the diagrams are followed by more in-depth information.

Diagram of an animal cell.
Diagram of an animal cell. | Source
Diagram of an plant cell.
Diagram of an plant cell. | Source

What Are the Differences Between Plant and Animal Cells?

Plant cells have to perform two functions that are not required of animal cells:

  1. Produce their own food (which they do in a process called photosynthesis).
  2. Support their own weight (which animals usually do by means of a skeleton).

The structures possessed by plant cells for performing these two functions create the primary differences between plant and animals cells. These structures are:

Structures Unique to Plant Cells

  • Cell Wall: A wall on the outside of the membrane, which, in combination with the vacuole (as described below), helps the plant cell maintain its shape and rigidity.
  • Plastids: Used in photosynthesis to convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into food. The most well-known plastids are chloroplasts, which contain the chlorophyll that gives many plants their green hue.
  • Large Vacuole: While animal cells may have many tiny vacuoles, a plant cell usually has a single large vacuole, which serves as a storage tank for food, water, waste products, and other materials. The vacuole has an important structural function, as well. When filled with water, the vacuole exerts internal pressure against the cell wall, which helps keep the cell rigid. A plant that is wilting has vacuoles that are no longer filled with water.

While animal cells do not have a cell wall, chloroplasts, or a large vacuole, they do have one component plant cells do not. This is:

Structures Unique to Animal Cells

  • Centrioles: Animal cells contain organelles known as centrioles, which are not present in plant cells. Centrioles help move chromosomes during cell division. Since animal cells are softer than plant cells, centrioles are required to ensure the chromosomes are in the proper location when the cell divides. Plant cells, with their more fixed shape, can safely assume that the chromosomes are correctly positioned.

Comparing the Components Plant and Animal Cells

Animal Cell
Plant Cell
X
Cell Wall
Membrane
Membrane
Cytoplasm
Cytoplasm
Endoplasmic Reticulum
Endoplasmic Reticulum
Nucleus
Nucleus
Ribosomes
Ribosomes
Centrioles
X
Mitochondria
Mitochondria
Golgi Bodies
Golgi Bodies
Vacuole
Vacuole
X
Chloroplast

What Are the Similarities Between Plant and Animal Cells?

Both plant cells and animal cells are Eukaryotic cells. These are cells that contain a well-defined nucleus and in which the other organelles are held together by membranes.

What Is an Organelle?

An organelle is any specialized structure that is contained within a cell. Organelles perform various functions to keep the cell alive.

Organelles that can be found in both plant and animal cells include the following:

Similarities Between Plant and Animal Cells

Organelle
Function
Cell Membrane
A selectively permeable wall that surrounds and protects the contents of the cell.
Cytoplasm
The fluid which fills the cell and keeps the organelles in place.
Nucleus
The command center of the cell that controls the various processes of the cell. The nucleus also contains most of the cell's genetic material.
Mitochondria
The powerhouse of the cell. Here, food is converted into energy.
Ribosomes
Ribosomes generate proteins from amino acids.
Endoplasmic Reticulum
A series of sacs and tubes used to process substances and transport them to golgi bodies for further distribution.
Golgi Bodies
Golgi bodies process and transfer substances to the correct location. They are also responsible for excreting waste from the cell.
Vacuoles
Sacs that serve as storage units.

Why Do Plant and Animal Cells Have so Much in Common?

As hard as it may be to imagine, biologists believe that at an early point in the evolution of life on Earth, plants and animals once shared a common ancestor. All life on Earth, it seems, is truly related.

Plant Cells vs. Animal Cells: Compare and Contrast (Video)

References

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 Glen Nunes

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