Shape and Size of Cells

Cells exhibit a wide variety of shapes and sizes, reflecting their specialized functions and adaptations to different environments. While cells can come in diverse forms, they share some common characteristics.

Shapes of Cells

Cells can have various shapes, including spherical, cuboidal, columnar, elongated, flattened, and irregular. The shape of a cell is determined by its function and the tissues or organs it belongs to. For examples-


Red Blood Cells: Red blood cells, also known as erythrocytes, have a distinctive biconcave shape, resembling a flattened sphere. This shape allows for increased surface area, facilitating the efficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.


Pancreatic Beta Cells: Pancreatic beta cells have a cuboidal shape, with equal length, width, and height. These cells form clusters within the pancreas and are responsible for producing and secreting insulin.


Photoreceptor Cells: The cells in the retina of the eye, including rod cells and cone cells, are columnar in shape. They have elongated structures that facilitate their function in detecting light and initiating visual signals.


Nerve Cells (Neurons): Neurons have an elongated shape with long branching extensions called dendrites and axons. These structures allow for the transmission of electrical signals within the nervous system.


Epithelial Cells: Epithelial cells can exhibit a flattened shape, particularly in tissues such as the skin. Squamous epithelial cells are thin and flat, providing a protective barrier on external surfaces.


Muscle Cells (Myocytes): Muscle cells have an irregular shape with long and branching structures. They possess unique contractile proteins that enable them to generate force and facilitate movements in the body.

Ciliated Cells: Ciliated cells can have an irregular shape, often with a columnar or cuboidal base and hair-like projections called cilia on their surface. These cilia have coordinated movements that help move substances across various surfaces, such as in the respiratory tract.

Size of Cells

Cells can vary greatly in size, and their dimensions are typically measured in micrometers (µm). Here are some examples of notable cell sizes across different organisms:


Bacterial cells are generally small and range in size from 1 to 10 µm. Some bacteria, such as Mycoplasma genitalium, are considered to be among the smallest known cells, measuring around 0.2 µm.

Animal Cells

Animal cells can vary in size depending on their type and function. While most animal cells fall within the range of 10 to 30 µm in diameter, there are exceptions. For instance, red blood cells, also known as erythrocytes, have a diameter of about 6-8 µm and lack a nucleus. On the other hand, nerve cells, or neurons, can be quite long, extending up to a meter in certain cases.

Plant Cells

Plant cells are generally larger than animal cells due to the presence of a rigid cell wall. The size of plant cells can vary depending on the tissue type. For example, leaf cells can be around 30 to 100 µm in length. Within plants, the largest known single cells are found in the algae known as Caulerpa taxifolia, with lengths reaching up to several centimeters.

Fungal Cells

Fungal cells can have diverse sizes depending on the species and environmental conditions. They generally range from 2 to 10 µm in diameter. However, some fungal cells, such as the hyphae, can grow to extensive lengths, reaching several centimeters or even meters. The elongated shape of fungal hyphae allows for efficient nutrient absorption.


Protists, which are a diverse group of microorganisms, exhibit a wide range of cell sizes. Some protist cells can be as small as 2 µm, while others can be much larger, measuring several hundred micrometers. For instance, the single-celled alga called Caulerpa racemosa has been reported to have a length of up to 6 cm, making it one of the longest known single cells.

The Limits of Cell Size or Volume

The factors that determine the limits of cell size or volume are as follows:

  1. Nucleocytoplasmic or Kernplasma Ratio: The kern-plasma ratio or karyoplasmic ratio, was first proposed by Oscar Hertwig in 1903. The ratio of the nucleus to the cytoplasm sets the range of control for metabolic activities governed by the nucleus. Cells with a higher nucleocytoplasmic ratio tend to be smaller and exhibit more efficient metabolic control.
  2. Rate of Metabolic Activity: Metabolically active cells generally tend to be smaller. This is because a smaller cell size allows for a higher rate of metabolic activity, facilitating efficient cellular functions.
  3. Surface Area to Volume Ratio: The ratio of the cell’s surface area to its volume is an important factor in determining cell size. Smaller cells have a higher surface area to volume ratio, enabling more efficient exchange of materials between the cell and its external environment.

Important Facts-

  1. Metabolically active cells are usually smaller due to a higher nucleocytoplasmic ratio and higher surface area-to-volume ratio.
  2. The bigger-sized nucleus will allow better control of metabolic activities.
  3. The high surface area volume ratio will allow the quicker exchange of materials between the cell and its outside environment.
  4. The surface volume ratio decreases with the increase in cell size or volume.
  5. Therefore larger cells tend to become less efficient. In order to overcome this deficiency, larger cells are either cylindrical in shape or possess several extensions of the cell membrane.
  6. Microvilli, pseudopodia etc. are such extensions.
  7. They are found in all those cells which are active in absorption.



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