Understanding the molecular biology of cells is one of the most active and fundamental areas of research in the biological sciences. This is true not only from the standpoint of basic science, but also with respect to the numerous applications of cell and molecular biology to medicine, biotechnology, and agriculture. Especially with the ability to obtain rapid sequences of complete genomes, progress in cell and molecular biology is opening new horizons in the practice of medicine. Striking examples include genome editing; the identification of genes that contribute to susceptibility to a variety of common diseases, such as heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes; the development of new drugs specifically targeted to interfere with the growth of cancer cells; and the potential use of stem cells to replace damaged tissues and treat patients suffering from conditions like diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and spinal cord injuries.
Because cell and molecular biology is such a rapidly growing field of research, it is important to understand its experimental basis as well as the current state of our knowledge. This chapter will therefore focus on how cells are studied, as well as review some of their basic properties. Appreciating the similarities and differences between cells is particularly important to understanding cell biology. The first section of this chapter discusses both the unity and the diversity of present-day cells in terms of their evolution from a common ancestor. On the one hand, all cells share common fundamental properties that have been conserved throughout evolution. For example, all cells employ DNA as their genetic material, are surrounded by plasma membranes, and use the same basic mechanisms for energy metabolism. On the other hand, present-day cells have evolved a variety of different lifestyles. Many organisms, such as bacteria, amoebas, and yeasts, consist of single cells that are capable of independent self-replication. More complex organisms are composed of collections of cells that function in a coordinated manner, with different cells specialized to perform particular tasks. The human body, for example, is composed of more than 200 different kinds of cells, each specialized for such distinctive functions as memory, sight, movement, and digestion. The diversity exhibited by the many different kinds of cells is striking; for example, consider the differences between bacteria and the cells of the human brain.
The fundamental similarities between different types of cells provide a unifying theme to cell biology, allowing the basic principles learned from experiments with one kind of cell to be extrapolated and generalized to other cell types. Several kinds of cells and organisms are widely used to study different aspects of cell and molecular biology; the second section of this chapter valuable as experimental models. Finally, it is important to recognize that progress in cell biology depends heavily on the availability of experimental tools that allow scientists to make new observations or conduct novel kinds of experiments. This introductory chapter therefore concludes with a discussion of some of the experimental approaches used to study cells, as well as a review of some of the major historical developments that have led to our current understanding of cell structure and function.