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What Are the Differences Between Animal and Plant Cells?

Updated on May 19, 2017

The Building Blocks of Life

In 1873, two scientists named Schleiden and Schwann were just putting the finishing touches to their Cell Theory. This theory stated that all organisms consist of one or more cells, and that the cell is the basic structural unit for all organisms. In discussions with each other, these ground-breaking scientists realised that although cells have lots of differences, they all have the same basic structure.

It is important to realise that most cells do not look like the general plant and animal cells that are illustrated in most science text books. There are over 200 types of cell in the human body and most look quite different from the general animal cell below. Each type of cell is a different shape, a different size, and a different job to do. Plants too show this variation. It is ironic that the first cells I teach my students to visualize under the microscope—onion cells—are not typical plant cells as they lack chloroplasts.

What Are the Differences between Animal and Plant Cells?

Click thumbnail to view full-size
A typical Animal CellA typical Plant Cell
A typical Animal Cell
A typical Animal Cell | Source
A typical Plant Cell
A typical Plant Cell | Source

Comparison of Plant and Animal Cells

Plant and Animals
Plants Only
Nucleus
Cell Wall
Cell Membrane
Chloroplasts
Cytoplasm
Vacuole
Mitochondria
Plasmodesmata
Lysosomes
 
Golgi Apparatus
 
Ribosomes
 
Rough Endoplasmic Reticulum
 
Smooth Endoplasmic Reticulum
 
The above table shows the characteristics of Eukaryotic Cells

Cell Organelle Functions

When you look at an animal or plant cell under a microscope, the most obvious feature you will see is the large, dark nucleus. If you have a really good microscope and an excellent preparation, you may be able to make out chloroplasts and vacuoles in plants. These are all examples of organelles. Most organelles are found in both plant and animal cells, and have the same functions in each type of cell. This is an example of division of labour, where each type of organelle has a specific role within the cell, all working together to ensure the survival of the cell.

Shared Organelles:

  • Nucleus - the command centre of the cell. This houses nearly all the genetic material of the cell. Within the nucleus is a spherical structure called the nucleolus which makes RNA and ribosomes.
  • Cell Membrane - the border guard of the cell - this envelope surrounds the cell and controls which substances can move in and out of the cell. Known as a fluid-mosaic membrane as it moves like a fluid and is studded with glycoproteins and glycoplipds giving it a mosaic-like appearance.
  • Mitochondria - the power station of the cell. These sausage shaped organelles convert glucose to ATP during respiration. ATP is the energy currency of the cell, used in almost all energy-requiring cellular processes.
  • Lysosomes - the cell's recycling plants. These spherical sacs contain powerful digestive enzymes. Their role is to break down materials.
  • Ribosomes - the factories of the cell. These tiny organelles are made up of two subunits and are the site of protein synthesis.
  • Endoplasmic Reticulum (ER) - made of a series of flattened, membrane-bound sacs called cisternae. ER comes in two forms: Rough ER transports proteins that were made on the attached ribosomes; Smooth ER is involved in lipid (fat) production.
  • Golgi Apparatus/Body - the post office of the cell. These flattened sacs look a little like a pile of pitta bread; the Golgi receives proteins from the ER, modifies and packages them for transportation. From here the packaged proteins are either sent to other parts of the cell, or sent to the cell membrane for secretion (think international exports).

Plant-only Organelles:

  • Chloroplasts - the solar panels for a plant. These double-membraned organelles are the site of photosynthesis in plant cells. Light energy is used to convert carbon dioxide (from the air) and water into carbohydrate molecules such as glucose.
  • Cell Wall - the defensive walls of the plant. They are made of cellulose and provide structural rigidity for the plant.
  • Vacuole - acts like the bladder inside a football. The large vacuole is filled with water and various solutes. The pressure of the fluid inside this organelle ensures the cell wall is held rigid (turgid). Ifa plant isn't watered for a few days, water is lost from the vacuole and each cell becomes less turgid and more flaccid. This is why a plant wilts.
  • Amyloplasts - the plant's food surplus warehouse. Extra glucose is converted into insoluble starch grains and stored in amyloplasts for use when times are harder.
  • Plasmodesmata - secret tunnels in the cell wall that allow neighbouring plant cells to communicate.

Animal-only Organelles:

  • Centrioles -The mechanical winch of the animal cell, these small tubes of protein fibres are involved in moving chromosomes during cell division.

The Cell Song

Differentiation and Stem Cells

There are over 200 cell types in your body, each with it's own characteristic size, shape and function. The cells are adapted to do their job - a process that happens before you are born. This is a one-way process; a skin cell cannot spontaneously change into a red blood cell or a neuron.

There is a group of cells, however, that can change into many different types of cell - stem cells. Stem cells are cells that haven't become adapted to do a particular job. They come in several types:

  • Multipotent: can change into several cell types. Haematopoietic cells are blood cells that can develop into many different types of blood cell, but cannot turn into any other cell type
  • Pluripotent: these stem cells can give rise to any adult cell type. Scientists can force 'normal' cells to become pluripotent (induced pluripotent stem cells or iPS) through gene manipulation
  • Totipotent: these stem cells can give rise to all the adult cells and extra-embryonic tissues such as the placenta. In humans, cells are only totipotent up to day 4 (around 16-cell stage) of foetal development.

Below are a series of micrographs showing how different cells are specialised to do their job.

Adaptation in Plants and Animals

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Nerve cells in the Hippocampus region of the brainA Red Blood Cell3 Human Sperm CellsScanning Electron Micrograph of Pollen Grains (Helianthus annuus - common sunflower)Confocal micrograph of guard cells around a stoma of the plant Arabidopsis.
Nerve cells in the Hippocampus region of the brain
Nerve cells in the Hippocampus region of the brain | Source
A Red Blood Cell
A Red Blood Cell | Source
3 Human Sperm Cells
3 Human Sperm Cells | Source
Scanning Electron Micrograph of Pollen Grains (Helianthus annuus - common sunflower)
Scanning Electron Micrograph of Pollen Grains (Helianthus annuus - common sunflower) | Source
Confocal micrograph of guard cells around a stoma of the plant Arabidopsis.
Confocal micrograph of guard cells around a stoma of the plant Arabidopsis. | Source

Functions and Structures of Animal Cells

Type of Cell
Structure
Function
Nerve Cell
Very long, thin cells. Myelin sheath speeds up impulse transmission
The instant messaging system of the body. Messages are carried at up to 300km/h. The ends of each cell can pick up and deliver messages from many places at once
Red Blood Cell
Biconcave disc and no nucleus to maximise surface area:volume ratio
Carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscle cells for respiration. Transports carbon dioxide from muscle cells to lungs for excretion
Sperm Cell
Long flagellum, packed with mitochondria for energy
Reproduction - carries half of male's genes to the egg for fertilisation.
Pollen Grain
Small and light with sticky ends so that it sticks onto a flower
Joins with the ovum in the female part of the plant to make a new plant
Guard Cells
Cell wall thicker on one side than the other, occur in pairs
Controls the opening and closing of a stoma to prevent water loss from the plant

What Are Tissues and Organs?

A cell may be the basic structural unit of life, but there are higher orders of structure in multicellular organisms.

  1. A Cell is the building block of life.
  2. A Tissue is a group of similar cells that carry out the same function.
  3. An Organ is a group of tissues that work together to carry out a particular function.
  4. An Organ System is a collection of organs that work together for a particular function.

Using these definitions we can see that skin is an organ - being made up of a number of different tissues including nervous tissue, muscle tissue, skin tissue, vascular tissue (blood vessels) and fat tissue. It also becomes clear that a blood transfusion is actually a tissue transplant, as blood contains several different cells all working together for a common purpose:

  • Red blood cells
  • White Blood cells
  • Platelets
  • Plasma

A good model for how the body works is a school. The teachers, cleaners, lab technicians, office staff, management and teaching assistants do different jobs. They all work together to run the school - if one group stopped working, the school would not function.

Interesting Facts About Cells

  • A single nerve cell in a giraffe can be over two metres long
  • Conditions like cancer are caused when cells divide too often.
  • The biggest cell in the world is the Ostrich Egg
  • There are more bacterial cells in the human body than human cells

Characteristics of Living Things

Characteristic
Description
Animal Organ Systems
Plant Organs
Move
All living things move
Muscle and Skeletal System
 
Respire
The chemical process of releasing energy from food
Respiratory System
Leaves
Sense
Detects change in the surroundings
Nervous System
 
Grow
All living things increase in size
Digestive System
Xylem and Phloem
Reproduce
Make more living things of the same species
Reproductive System
Flowers
Excrete
Remove waste products
Digestive, urinary and respiratory Systems
Leaves
Nutrition
Use food to provide energy for all other life processes
Digestive System
Leaves, storage organs (tubers etc.)
The living processes can be remembered by MRS. GREN

Cells Summary

  1. There are two types of cell - eukaryotes have a Nucleus, prokaryotes do not.
  2. Cells are filled with smaller structures called organelles - each organelle has a specific job.
  3. Animal and Plant cells are identified according to their organelles - chloroplasts, cellulose cell walls and vacuoles are unique to plants.
  4. There are around 200 different types of cell in the body, each with a different job. The different cell types have adaptations to help them do their job.
  5. Division of Labour is where different parts perform specialised functions, each contributing to the functioning of the whole.
  6. Stem cells are a group of cell that have not fully differentiated and so can develop into two or more cell types. There are three broad categories of stem cells.
  7. A group of similar cells that carry out the same function are called tissues.
  8. A group of tissues that carry out the same function are called organs.
  9. There are 7 life processes supported by various organs or organ systems. These can be remembered using MRS. GREN.

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    • profile image

      Grace 2 years ago

      Grace yarzue

    • profile image

      feri 2 years ago

      great explanation but i can't clear my doubt my doubt is what is the difference between plant and animal cell?option are (a).growth (b)respiration (c)nutrition (d)locomotion the answer is nutrition can anyone clear this doubt.

    • janderson99 profile image

      Dr. John Anderson 3 years ago from Australia on Planet Water

      Very informative. Great hub.

    • profile image

      citlaly gabriel 4 years ago

      6th grade islearning about. Plant cell and animal cell it is super interesting :-*

    • profile image

      citlaly :-) :- 4 years ago

      This thing is cool

    • profile image

      James! 4 years ago

      I would like to ask where are more cell types, in plants or in animals? And where are more genes?

    • profile image

      rrr 4 years ago

      sweet

    • profile image

      Tina 4 years ago

      Love your song!!!!!

    • melbel profile image

      Melanie Shebel 5 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

      Perhaps.

    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      I can only find reference to (on PubMed) vacuolation during apoptosis or cellular injury, not during normal cellular function. This suggests that vacuoles are mainly created during abberations in cellular function?

      This is amazing if animal cells also create vacuoles. I'm still rather skeptical as it seems these are identical to peroxisomes in structure and function as they lack a tonoplast. Also small circular organelles used for temporary storage sound more like vesicles than vacuoles. Perhaps this is merely a semantic point.

      If not, then the UK education system is lying to its students. Every revision site and every syllabus (including the National Curricula) state that animal cells lack vacuoles. Perhaps it is due to the recent nature of this finding?

    • melbel profile image

      Melanie Shebel 5 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

      I couldn't find a link that didn't require a paid login (I have a handle, so I could take a screenshot for you), but this article, "Autophagy promotes survival of retinal ganglion cells after optic nerve axotomy in mice" make mention of vacuoles in animal cells.

      http://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/cells/plants/vacuole.h...

      This page talks about vacuoles in plant cells but states that they are present in animal cells as well.

      Unfortunately, I can't refer you to many scientific papers. The database I use requires a paid subscription.

      If you do a quick search on Jstor, I'm sure something will pop up. :)

    • TFScientist profile image
      Author

      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      The reason I ask is that this must be a recent development as it took no part in my Cell Biology degree or in any of my teaching syllabi. If I have been wrong for the last two years I would like to correct a few of my presentations.

      I have only been able to find reference to this in non-academic websites

      I am aware that lysosomes and peroxisomes (small circular organelles that appear similar in structure to small vacuoles and have similar uses) exist in both plants and animals. Obviously membrane packaging by the Golgi for exocytosis throws up similar structures under light microscopy.

    • TFScientist profile image
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      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      That's fascinating - have you a paper that states this?

    • melbel profile image

      Melanie Shebel 5 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

      Animal cells actually do contain vacuoles (not all animal cells do, though), they just have a minimal role in comparison to vacuoles in plant or fungi cells.

    • TFScientist profile image
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      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @Marcy: Thanks for the pinterest share - I love it when people think my writing is good enough not only to read themselves but to be passed on to others. It is the highest form of praise. I'm glad you found it useful and interesting

    • TFScientist profile image
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      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @Sun Pen: Long time no see! I'm glad you enjoyed my hub. This topic can get complicated and convoluted very quickly; I'm glad I explained it simply enough without patronising people.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      I keep coming back to the neat information here! Shared on Pinterest; I know so many people with kids who would love this one!

    • Sun Pen 50 profile image

      Sun Pen 50 5 years ago from Srilanka

      Lot of useful and interesting information. Explained well and in a simple way. Thanks.

    • TFScientist profile image
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      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @Marcy: I was toying with the idea of putting in a video of me drawing the two types of cells and talking the viewer through each one. My camera wasn't up to the task however!

      I'm glad you found this interesting

    • TFScientist profile image
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      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      I'm glad you found it fun and that you liked the illustrations - most of the work on this hub was searching for appropriate open use diagrams

    • TFScientist profile image
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      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @Michael: O dear...if your head is spinning I shudder to think what I am doing to my A-level students! I'm glad you learnt something. I did try to pitch this slightly below degree level. This hub covers basic cell topics from Yr 7(11yrs old) up to AS level (17years old) in my biology lessons.

    • TFScientist profile image
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      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @Mmargie: Don't fret about the quiz :) I'm so pleased that my hub has taught you 80% of the content - there is some reasonably complicated content here. I always try to use songs in my lessons where possible. They stick in your head where lectures and practicals may not. Thanks for your comment!

    • TFScientist profile image
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      Rhys Baker 5 years ago from Peterborough, UK

      @JKenny: Thanks for the comment. I do try to get the information across in as basic and clear a way without patronising or skipping over important details. From your comment it seems that I have achieved this

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow! What a wonderfully written and presented. You display the information in such a clear way. It takes me back to the textbooks I had in school. Great job. Voted up etc.

    • Mmargie1966 profile image

      Mmargie1966 5 years ago from Gainesville, GA

      GREAT HUB! I did miss one on the quiz, but I knew NONE of this (really remember none) before I read it. I really appreciated the tables and loved the song.

    • Michael J Rapp profile image

      Michael J Rapp 5 years ago from United States

      Wow! This takes me back to Anatomy and Physiology class in college. I always learn a thing or two from your Hubs, even if they leave my head spinning just a bit. Very thorough and well done!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 5 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      Great little biology lesson. You made it fun and informative.Nicely illustrated.

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 5 years ago from Planet Earth

      What an informative hub! My kids would have loved having this resource when they were in school. Thanks for the terrific details, the tables and graphics here - great job!

      Voted up and up!

    • whonunuwho profile image

      whonunuwho 5 years ago from United States

      A great hub and extremely interesting. I find it satisfying to realize that plant and animal organisms depend upon each other in order for all to sustain life. That is one misunderstanding that many big business types fail to comprehend and can be witnessed in the extreme waste and poor conservation habits of many. Only a few profit from the wasteful tactics that generate their money in lumber, fishing and waste disposal of big factories world wide. The biological sanctuary in which we are all a part, is now suffering greatly and is in need of many adjustments. The planet will make these adjustments on its own, if we do not step up to the plate ourselves.