Cell Biology

Cells are the basic entity of all living organisms.  Cell biology, previously known as cytology, is the field that deals with studying different aspects of cell structure and function.  Some areas that cell biology addresses are cellular components, responses under different conditions, their functions, regulation of cellular processes, intercellular communication, cell multiplication, growth, and death.

Cell biology is an interdisciplinary subject typically studied in conjunction with other subjects such as Genetics, Immunology, Molecular Biology, and Biochemistry.  Cell biology focuses on the cellular study of all things living, starting from simple unicellular organisms, such as bacteria, to complex multicellular organisms including humans.  It opens the door for many types of specializations, including developmental biology, cancer research, and neurobiology.

Applications of Cell Biology: Finding Cures For Incurable Diseases

In spite of great medical advancements, many conditions such as obesity, infertility, cancer, erectile dysfunction, AIDS, and congenital defects are not completely understood. Current treatments are limited by the scope of scientific research and our ability to understand various cellular mechanisms. In light of the need to understand both intracellular and intercellular interactions, researchers have used techniques such as RNAi interference and transfection to access a reservoir of knowledge hidden within a cell’s genome. These advancements have brought cell biology to a new level in therapeutics, and individualized solutions to complicated diseases are increasingly accessible.

One of the impressive applications of cell biology is cloning, which is the process of creating exact replicas of living organisms or tissues.  Creating copies of endangered species, beloved pets, and body parts are some advancements of cloning.  For instance, a small part of healthy skin from an otherwise severely burnt patient can be cloned to create a large mass of healthy skin.  The new skin cells can then be grafted on the burnt areas without running the risk of graft versus host rejection.  Similarly, cloning experts are providing a ray of hope to those suffering from severely mutilated/malfunctioning body parts.  However, the long term impact of cloning remains to be studied and is replete with ethical questions.

Cell Biology Experimental Equipment and Methods

A scanning electron microscope, such as the one shown above, can be used to generate highly accurate pictures of cells and interactions. Recently, the nobel prize in chemistry was awarded to a team that developed processes of imaging cells. By freezing cellular components and imaging them, cell processes can be captured mid-event, leading to detailed observations of important cell properties.

Knowing that most cells and cellular parts are microscopic, commonly used techniques in cell biology include the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), lipid transfection, cell based assays, cell culture, electroporation, and immunofluorescence.  These techniques have been standardized over the years, and relevant protocols and resources have become commercialized. Several other instruments can be relevant to studying cells; microscopes and nanoparticle formulations allow researchers to access the inner workings of a cell.

When performing histological stainings, cells are viewed using a variety of different microscopes. Inverted microscopes and scanning electron microscopes are commonly used to generate detailed pictures of stationary cell molecules. Fluorescence and bright field microscopy are also used for the detection of specific compounds as they are processed within cells.

Other applications of cell biology are in realm of biotechnology, where the ability to control protein and mRNA expression have allowed the development of many new types of therapies. Not only are these techniques important for the production of therapeutic proteins and vaccines, but they also enable the study of antibody generation, gene regulation, protein-protein interactions, and protein structure.  Proteins are often mass-produced for research purposes and industrial use. Techniques used in protein production can be generalized to allow for the production of viral subunits, antibodies, and gene therapy vectors.

Future of Cell Biology

In November 2007, researchers developed cells similar to the human embryonic cells using differentiated adult human cells.  Because this process does not use actual embryonic cells, it circumvents the ethical questions associated with using human embryonic cells.  More scientists tend to favor this technique because it is cost-effective and directly translates to doctors in the future being able to treat patients simply by transforming their own healthy cells into a replacement for the malfunctioning tissue types.

Development of nano-machines is one of the latest trends in cell biology.  Small components are capable of reaching cells deep within a tissue or body, and when combined with targeted drug delivery, can result in extremely precise therapies. Such techniques can lead to the selective treatment of cancer that avoids damaging cells surrounding the tumor.