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Cell biology
Animal cell diagram
Animal Cell.svg
Components of a typical animal cell:
  1. Nucleolus
  2. Nucleus
  3. Ribosome (dots as part of 5)
  4. Vesicle
  5. Rough endoplasmic reticulum
  6. Golgi apparatus (or, Golgi body)
  7. Cytoskeleton
  8. Smooth endoplasmic reticulum
  9. Mitochondrion
  10. Vacuole
  11. Cytosol (fluid that contains organelles; with which, comprises cytoplasm)
  12. Lysosome
  13. Centrosome
  14. Cell membrane
Plant cell structure Plant cell structure svg vacuole.svg
Plant cell structure
Animal cell structure Biological cell vacuole.svg
Animal cell structure

A vacuole ( /ˈvækjuːl/ ) is a membrane-bound organelle which is present in plant and fungal cells and some protist, animal, and bacterial cells. [1] [2] Vacuoles are essentially enclosed compartments which are filled with water containing inorganic and organic molecules including enzymes in solution, though in certain cases they may contain solids which have been engulfed. Vacuoles are formed by the fusion of multiple membrane vesicles and are effectively just larger forms of these. [3] The organelle has no basic shape or size; its structure varies according to the requirements of the cell.



Contractile vacuoles ("stars") were first observed by Spallanzani (1776) in protozoa, although mistaken for respiratory organs. Dujardin (1841) named these "stars" as vacuoles. In 1842, Schleiden applied the term for plant cells, to distinguish the structure with cell sap from the rest of the protoplasm. [4] [5] [6] [7]

In 1885, de Vries named the vacuole membrane as tonoplast. [8]


The function and significance of vacuoles varies greatly according to the type of cell in which they are present, having much greater prominence in the cells of plants, fungi and certain protists than those of animals and bacteria. In general, the functions of the vacuole include:

Vacuoles also play a major role in autophagy, maintaining a balance between biogenesis (production) and degradation (or turnover), of many substances and cell structures in certain organisms. They also aid in the lysis and recycling of misfolded proteins that have begun to build up within the cell. Thomas Boller [11] and others proposed that the vacuole participates in the destruction of invading bacteria and Robert B. Mellor proposed organ-specific forms have a role in 'housing' symbiotic bacteria. In protists, [12] vacuoles have the additional function of storing food which has been absorbed by the organism and assisting in the digestive and waste management process for the cell. [13]

In animal cells, vacuoles perform mostly subordinate roles, assisting in larger processes of exocytosis and endocytosis.

Animal vacuoles are smaller than their plant counterparts but also usually greater in number. [14] There are also animal cells that do not have any vacuoles. [15]

Exocytosis is the extrusion process of proteins and lipids from the cell. These materials are absorbed into secretory granules within the Golgi apparatus before being transported to the cell membrane and secreted into the extracellular environment. In this capacity, vacuoles are simply storage vesicles which allow for the containment, transport and disposal of selected proteins and lipids to the extracellular environment of the cell.

Endocytosis is the reverse of exocytosis and can occur in a variety of forms. Phagocytosis ("cell eating") is the process by which bacteria, dead tissue, or other bits of material visible under the microscope are engulfed by cells. The material makes contact with the cell membrane, which then invaginates. The invagination is pinched off, leaving the engulfed material in the membrane-enclosed vacuole and the cell membrane intact. Pinocytosis ("cell drinking") is essentially the same process, the difference being that the substances ingested are in solution and not visible under the microscope. [16] Phagocytosis and pinocytosis are both undertaken in association with lysosomes which complete the breakdown of the material which has been engulfed. [17]

Salmonella is able to survive and reproduce in the vacuoles of several mammal species after being engulfed. [18]

The vacuole probably evolved several times independently, even within the Viridiplantae. [14]

Vacuole types

Gas vacuoles

Gas vesicles, also known as gas vacuoles, are nanocompartments which are freely permeable to gas, [19] and occur mainly in Cyanobacteria, but are also found in other bacteria species and some archaea. [20] Gas vesicles allow the bacteria to control their buoyancy. They are formed when small biconical structures grow to form spindles. The vesicle walls are composed of a hydrophobic gas vesicle protein A (GvpA) which form a cylindrical hollow, proteinaceous structure that fills with gas. [20] [21] Small variances in the amino acid sequence produce changes in morphology of the gas vesicle, for example, GvpC, is a larger protein. [22]

Central vacuoles

The anthocyanin-storing vacuoles of Rhoeo spathacea, a spiderwort, in cells that have plasmolyzed Rhoeo Discolor - Plasmolysis.jpg
The anthocyanin-storing vacuoles of Rhoeo spathacea, a spiderwort, in cells that have plasmolyzed

Most mature plant cells have one large vacuole that typically occupies more than 30% of the cell's volume, and that can occupy as much as 80% of the volume for certain cell types and conditions. [23] Strands of cytoplasm often run through the vacuole.

A vacuole is surrounded by a membrane called the tonoplast (word origin: Gk tón(os) + -o-, meaning “stretching”, “tension”, “tone” + comb. form repr. Gk plastós formed, molded) and filled with cell sap. Also called the vacuolar membrane, the tonoplast is the cytoplasmic membrane surrounding a vacuole, separating the vacuolar contents from the cell's cytoplasm. As a membrane, it is mainly involved in regulating the movements of ions around the cell, and isolating materials that might be harmful or a threat to the cell. [24]

Transport of protons from the cytosol to the vacuole stabilizes cytoplasmic pH, while making the vacuolar interior more acidic creating a proton motive force which the cell can use to transport nutrients into or out of the vacuole. The low pH of the vacuole also allows degradative enzymes to act. Although single large vacuoles are most common, the size and number of vacuoles may vary in different tissues and stages of development. For example, developing cells in the meristems contain small provacuoles and cells of the vascular cambium have many small vacuoles in the winter and one large one in the summer.

Aside from storage, the main role of the central vacuole is to maintain turgor pressure against the cell wall. Proteins found in the tonoplast (aquaporins) control the flow of water into and out of the vacuole through active transport, pumping potassium (K+) ions into and out of the vacuolar interior. Due to osmosis, water will diffuse into the vacuole, placing pressure on the cell wall. If water loss leads to a significant decline in turgor pressure, the cell will plasmolyze. Turgor pressure exerted by vacuoles is also required for cellular elongation: as the cell wall is partially degraded by the action of expansins, the less rigid wall is expanded by the pressure coming from within the vacuole. Turgor pressure exerted by the vacuole is also essential in supporting plants in an upright position. Another function of a central vacuole is that it pushes all contents of the cell's cytoplasm against the cellular membrane, and thus keeps the chloroplasts closer to light. [25] Most plants store chemicals in the vacuole that react with chemicals in the cytosol. If the cell is broken, for example by a herbivore, then the two chemicals can react forming toxic chemicals. In garlic, alliin and the enzyme alliinase are normally separated but form allicin if the vacuole is broken. A similar reaction is responsible for the production of syn-propanethial-S-oxide when onions are cut.[ citation needed ]

Vacuoles in fungal cells perform similar functions to those in plants and there can be more than one vacuole per cell. In yeast cells the vacuole is a dynamic structure that can rapidly modify its morphology. They are involved in many processes including the homeostasis of cell pH and the concentration of ions, osmoregulation, storing amino acids and polyphosphate and degradative processes. Toxic ions, such as strontium (Sr2+
), cobalt(II) (Co2+
), and lead(II) (Pb2+
) are transported into the vacuole to isolate them from the rest of the cell. [26]

Contractile vacuoles

Contractile Vacuoles is a specialized osmoregulatory organelle that is present in many free-living protists. [27] The contractile vacuole is part of the contractile vacuole complex which includes radial arms and a spongiome. The contractile vacuole complex works periodically contracts to remove excess water and ions from the cell to balance water flow into the cell. [28] When the contractile vacuole is slowly taking water in, the contractile vacuole enlarges, this is called diastole and when it reaches its threshold, the central vacuole contracts then contracts (systole) periodically to release water. [29]

Food vacuoles

Food vacuoles (also called digestive vacuole [30] ) are organelles found in Ciliates, and Plasmodium falciparum, a protozoan parasite that causes Malaria.


In histopathology, vacuolization is the formation of vacuoles or vacuole-like structures, within or adjacent to cells. It is an unspecific sign of disease.[ citation needed ]

Related Research Articles

Cell (biology) Basic unit of all known organisms

The cell is the basic structural and functional unit of life. Every cell consists of a cytoplasm enclosed within a membrane, which contains many biomolecules such as proteins and nucleic acids.

Cytoplasm All of the contents of a eukaryotic cell except the nucleus

In cell biology, the cytoplasm is all of the material within a eukaryotic cell, enclosed by the cell membrane, except for the cell nucleus. The material inside the nucleus and contained within the nuclear membrane is termed the nucleoplasm. The main components of the cytoplasm are cytosol, the organelles, and various cytoplasmic inclusions. The cytoplasm is about 80% water and is usually colorless.

Endomembrane system Membranes in the cytoplasm of a eukaryotic cell

The endomembrane system is composed of the different membranes that are suspended in the cytoplasm within a eukaryotic cell. These membranes divide the cell into functional and structural compartments, or organelles. In eukaryotes the organelles of the endomembrane system include: the nuclear membrane, the endoplasmic reticulum, the Golgi apparatus, lysosomes, vesicles, endosomes, and plasma (cell) membrane among others. The system is defined more accurately as the set of membranes that form a single functional and developmental unit, either being connected directly, or exchanging material through vesicle transport. Importantly, the endomembrane system does not include the membranes of plastids or mitochondria, but might have evolved partially and from the actions of the latter.

Lysosome Cell organelle

A lysosome is a membrane-bound organelle found in many animal cells. They are spherical vesicles that contain hydrolytic enzymes that can break down many kinds of biomolecules. A lysosome has a specific composition, of both its membrane proteins, and its lumenal proteins. The lumen's pH (~4.5–5.0) is optimal for the enzymes involved in hydrolysis, analogous to the activity of the stomach. Besides degradation of polymers, the lysosome is involved in various cell processes, including secretion, plasma membrane repair, apoptosis, cell signaling, and energy metabolism.

In cell biology, an organelle is a specialized subunit, usually within a cell, that has a specific function. The name organelle comes from the idea that these structures are parts of cells, as organs are to the body, hence organelle, the suffix -elle being a diminutive. Organelles are either separately enclosed within their own lipid bilayers or are spatially distinct functional units without a surrounding lipid bilayer. Although most organelles are functional units within cells, some functional units that extend outside of cells are often termed organelles, such as cilia, the flagellum and archaellum, and the trichocyst.

Plant cell Type of eukaryotic cell present in green plants

Plant cells are eukaryotic cells present in green plants, photosynthetic eukaryotes of the kingdom Plantae. Their distinctive features include primary cell walls containing cellulose, hemicelluloses and pectin, the presence of plastids with the capability to perform photosynthesis and store starch, a large vacuole that regulates turgor pressure, the absence of flagella or centrioles, except in the gametes, and a unique method of cell division involving the formation of a cell plate or phragmoplast that separates the new daughter cells.

Vesicle (biology and chemistry) Any small, fluid-filled, spherical organelle enclosed by a membrane

In cell biology, a vesicle is a structure within or outside a cell, consisting of liquid or cytoplasm enclosed by a lipid bilayer. Vesicles form naturally during the processes of secretion (exocytosis), uptake (endocytosis) and transport of materials within the plasma membrane. Alternatively, they may be prepared artificially, in which case they are called liposomes. If there is only one phospholipid bilayer, they are called unilamellar liposome vesicles; otherwise they are called multilamellar. The membrane enclosing the vesicle is also a lamellar phase, similar to that of the plasma membrane, and intracellular vesicles can fuse with the plasma membrane to release their contents outside the cell. Vesicles can also fuse with other organelles within the cell. A vesicle released from the cell is known as an extracellular vesicle.

A proton pump is an integral membrane protein pump that builds up a proton gradient across a biological membrane. Proton pumps catalyze the following reaction:

Lysis is the breaking down of the membrane of a cell, often by viral, enzymic, or osmotic mechanisms that compromise its integrity. A fluid containing the contents of lysed cells is called a lysate. In molecular biology, biochemistry, and cell biology laboratories, cell cultures may be subjected to lysis in the process of purifying their components, as in protein purification, DNA extraction, RNA extraction, or in purifying organelles.

Cytoplasmic streaming

Cytoplasmic streaming, also called protoplasmic streaming and cyclosis, is the flow of the cytoplasm inside the cell, driven by forces from the cytoskeleton. It is likely that its function is, at least in part, to speed up the transport of molecules and organelles around the cell. It is usually observed in large plant and animal cells, greater than approximately 0.1 mm. In smaller cells, the diffusion of molecules is more rapid, but diffusion slows as the size of the cell increases, so larger cells may need cytoplasmic streaming for efficient function.


In cell biology, a phagosome is a vesicle formed around a particle engulfed by a phagocyte via phagocytosis. Professional phagocytes include macrophages, neutrophils, and dendritic cells (DCs).

Contractile vacuole

A contractile vacuole (CV) is a sub-cellular structure (organelle) involved in osmoregulation. It is found predominantly in amoeba and in unicellular algae. It was previously known as pulsatile or pulsating vacuole.

The bacterium, despite its simplicity, contains a well-developed cell structure which is responsible for some of its unique biological structures and pathogenicity. Many structural features are unique to bacteria and are not found among archaea or eukaryotes. Because of the simplicity of bacteria relative to larger organisms and the ease with which they can be manipulated experimentally, the cell structure of bacteria has been well studied, revealing many biochemical principles that have been subsequently applied to other organisms.

Turgor pressure is the force within the cell that pushes the plasma membrane against the cell wall.

Outline of cell biology Overview of and topical guide to cell biology

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to cell biology:

Amoeba (genus)

Amoeba is a genus of single-celled amoeboids in the family Amoebidae. The type species of the genus is Amoeba proteus, a common freshwater organism, widely studied in classrooms and laboratories.

Eukaryote Domain of life having cells with nuclei

Eukaryotes are organisms whose cells have a nucleus enclosed within a nuclear envelope. Eukaryotes belong to the domain Eukaryota or Eukarya; their name comes from the Greek εὖ and κάρυον. The domain Eukaryota makes up one of the three domains of life; bacteria and archaea make up the other two domains. The eukaryotes are usually now regarded as having emerged in the Archaea or as a sister of the now cultivated Asgard archaea. Eukaryotes represent a tiny minority of the number of organisms; however, due to their generally much larger size, their collective global biomass is estimated to be about equal to that of prokaryotes. Eukaryotes emerged approximately 2.1–1.6 billion years ago, during the Proterozoic eon, likely as flagellated phagotrophs.

Cell membrane Biological membrane that separates the interior of a cell from its outside environment

The cell membrane is a biological membrane that separates the interior of all cells from the outside environment which protects the cell from its environment. The cell membrane consists of a lipid bilayer, including cholesterols that sit between phospholipids to maintain their fluidity at various temperatures. The membrane also contains membrane proteins, including integral proteins that go across the membrane serving as membrane transporters, and peripheral proteins that loosely attach to the outer (peripheral) side of the cell membrane, acting as enzymes shaping the cell. The cell membrane controls the movement of substances in and out of cells and organelles. In this way, it is selectively permeable to ions and organic molecules. In addition, cell membranes are involved in a variety of cellular processes such as cell adhesion, ion conductivity and cell signalling and serve as the attachment surface for several extracellular structures, including the cell wall, the carbohydrate layer called the glycocalyx, and the intracellular network of protein fibers called the cytoskeleton. In the field of synthetic biology, cell membranes can be artificially reassembled.

Microautophagy is one of the three common forms of autophagic pathway, but unlike macroautophagy and chaperone-mediated autophagy, it is mediated—in mammals by lysosomal action or in plants and fungi by vacuolar action—by direct engulfment of the cytoplasmic cargo. Cytoplasmic material is trapped in the lysosome/vacuole by a random process of membrane invagination.

Gas vesicle

Gas vesicles, also known as gas vacuoles, are nanocompartments in certain prokaryotic organisms, which help in buoyancy. Gas vesicles are composed entirely of protein; no lipids or carbohydrates have been detected.


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