The Origin and Evolution of Cells

Cells are divided into two main classes, initially defined by whether they contain a nucleus. Prokaryotic cells (bacteria) lack a nuclear envelope; eukaryotic cells have a nucleus in which the genetic material is separated from the cytoplasm. Prokaryotic cells are generally smaller and simpler than eukaryotic cells; in addition to the absence of a nucleus, their genomes are less complex and they do not contain cytoplasmic organelles or a cytoskeleton. In spite of these differences, the same basic molecular mechanisms govern the lives of both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, indicating that all present-day cells are descended from a single primordial ancestor. How did this first cell develop? And how did the complexity and diversity exhibited by present-day cells evolve?

The first cell

The first cell The first cell is presumed to have arisen by the enclosure of self-replicating RNA in a membrane composed of phospholipids. As discussed in detail in the next chapter, phospholipids are the basic components of all present-day biological membranes, including the plasma membranes of both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. The key characteristic of the phospholipids that form membranes is that they are amphipathic molecules, meaning that one portion of the molecule is soluble in water and another portion is not. Phospholipids have long, water-insoluble (hydrophobic) hydrocarbon chains joined to water-soluble (hydrophilic) head groups that contain phosphate. When placed in water, phospholipids spontaneously aggregate into a bilayer with their phosphate-containing head groups on the outside in contact with water and their hydrocarbon tails in the interior in contact with each other. Such a phospholipid bilayer forms a stable barrier between two aqueous compartments, for example, separating the interior of the cell from its external environment.

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