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Cell Biology

The study of the formation, structure, components and function of cells.

Members of the American Society of Cell Biology have worked with CourseSource to create a Learning Framework for the Cell Biology Course. The table below lists the learning goals and objectives that the Society agrees any undergraduate biological sciences major should know about Cell Biology by the time they graduate. 


The following people worked to develop this society-approved Cell Biology Learning Framework:

Alison Adams (Northern Arizona University), Robert Brooker (University of Minnesota), Jennifer Carney (Finger Lakes Community College), Bradley Hyman (University of California), Michael Klymkowsky (University of Colorado), Kathryn Miller (Washington University), Susan Singer (Carleton College), Kimberly Tanner (San Francisco State University), Michael Wolyniak (Hampden-Sydney College) and Sue Wick (University of Minnesota).


Cell Biology Learning Framework

Society Learning Goals Articles Sample Learning Objectives
Membrane Structure and Function
How do varied membrane composition and the structural features of component macromolecules in different cells contribute to membrane function?
  • Draw the structure of a lipid and explain how the structure allows a lipid bilayer to spontaneously assemble in an aqueous environment.
  • Explain the importance of membrane lipid and protein component structural asymmetries in membrane function.
  • Describe the process by which membranes grow, are turned over, or are absorbed.
  • Explain why different membranes have different lipid and protein constituents.
How do solutes and other materials move across membranes?
  • Given a set of molecules of differing solubility in water, predict their relative rates of diffusion across a membrane bilayer.
  • Compare and contrast the properties and functions of channels and carriers.
  • Given data about the relative concentrations of solutes on both sides of a membrane, predict the direction of solute flow.
  • Design an experiment that distinguishes between different modes of crossing the membrane, such as diffusion, facilitated diffusion, active transport.
Nuclear Structure and Function
How does the structure of the nucleus affect chromosome organization and gene expression?
  • Describe the arrangement of chromosomal DNA in the nucleus and how it changes during the cell cycle.
  • Compare and contrast how the presence of a nucleus in eukaryotes and its absence in prokaryotes alters the dynamics of gene expression.
  • Design an experiment to demonstrate the role of the nuclear pore complex.
  • From an evolutionary perspective, propose a mechanism that gave rise to the eukaryotic nucleus.
  • Diagram where ribosomal components are synthesized and where they are assembled.
Cytoskeleton Structure and function
How do the different components of the cytoskeleton support a variety of cell functions, such as cell shape, division, movement, sensing the environment, and cell-cell communication?
  • Compare the characteristics and functions of microfilaments, microtubules, and intermediate filaments.
  • Compare the structure and dynamic properties of microtubules versus actin and how these properties contribute to the different functions of these polymers in cells.
  • Explain how motor proteins harness energy to move along cytoskeletal tracks.
Cell cycle and cell division
How do cells conduct, coordinate, and regulate nuclear and cell division?
  • Predict how a mutation or other functional alteration in a cytoskeletal protein will affect the progress of nuclear and cytoplasmic division.
  • Defend the argument that the presence of a cell wall in plants and fungi requires a different method for dividing the cytoplasm than that used in animals.
  • Evaluate the relative contribution of mutations in tumor suppressor genes and proto-oncogenes in the development of cancer.
  • Assess the usefulness and limitations of information obtained from several experimental techniques (i.e., TEM, atomic force microscopy, fluorescent antibody labeling, and confocal fluorescence time lapse microscopy) in dissecting cytoskeletal roles in nuclear and cell division.
  • Compare different methods used to coordinate cell division in different cell types.
  • Compare and contrast organization of the mitotic spindle in animal, fungal, and plant cells and discuss the evolutionary and functional relevance.
Cell Communication
How do cells send, receive, and respond to signals from their environment, including other cells?
  • Explain how a cell’s interactions with its environment can influence cell morphology, behavior, division, or survival.
  • Compare and contrast the molecular mechanisms of membrane receptor-mediated and nuclear receptor-mediated signal transduction.
  • Describe different mechanisms by which a membrane-bound receptor can affect cell physiology or behavior.
  • Choose an everyday human experience and explain how it is mediated by cellular changes due to an external signal.
  • Describe how the presence of gap junctions alters cellular responses to extracellular signals.
Matter & Energy Transformation
How do cells transform energy and cycle matter?
  • List the types of energy used by cells and give examples of when / in what cells / situations the different energy sources are used.
  • Explain why energy transformations are necessary in the cell.
  • Diagram the energy transformations used in glycolysis, respiration and photosynthesis in a plant cell.
  • Explain how cyanide, an electron transport chain inhibitor, impacts oxygen consumption within animal cells.
Cellular Specialization
How can and why do cells with the same genomes have different structures and functions?
  • Describe how differential gene regulation causes cell differentiation.
  • Compare and contrast the structure and function of different cell types.
  • Predict how a drug with a known target would affect the function of a specific cell type (e.g., a neuron).
  • Evaluate the strength and limitations of pieces of evidence in support of the claim that a particular inherited diseases affects a specific cell type.
  • Evaluate the benefits of cell specialization in organisms with varying degrees of complexity.
  • Evaluate evidence in support of the claim stem cells have great potential in the treatment of a variety of human diseases.
Multicellularity & Cell Connections
How do cells connect to each other and organize to function as a collective entity?
  • Differentiate the ways plant, animal and fungal cells are connected to each other and exchange materials independent of membrane transport.
  • Evaluate the claim that colonial organisms are multicellular.
  • Compare and contrast cell communication in unicellular and multicellular organisms in response to pathogens, symbionts, and physical and chemical signals.
  • Evaluate the importance of cell-cell communication in coordinating function in multicellular organisms.
  • Given an example of apoptosis, analyze its potential effect on fitness of the organism.
Protein Targeting & Trafficking
How are cellular components targeted and distributed to different regions and compartments of a cell?
  • Discuss the differences in structure of a protein occupying its target destination in the cell and immediately after translation from the mRNA.
  • Explain the mechanism and function of the unfolded protein response and its value to the cell.
  • Compare the general mechanisms that allow some newly synthesized proteins to be released into the cytoplasm, whereas others are directed into other cellular compartments.
  • Identify the different cellular compartments in a eukaryotic cell and their main functions in the cell.
  • Analyze data to determine the path taken by a protein that normally resides in an organelle/compartment or is secreted from the cell from its site of synthesis to its final destination.
  • Given data on effects of drugs and other functional manipulations on entry of various molecules and particles into the cell, determine what pathway is used for entry.
  • Compare the molecular recognition events and mechanisms required for movement of proteins through different uptake and secretion pathways.
Evolutionary History of Cells
How does evolutionary history explain the similarities and differences among cells?
  • Evaluate data about the evolutionary relatedness among eukaryotes, archaea, and bacteria, including caveats or limitations.
  • Evaluate the case for cytoskeleton evolution from bacterial components.
  • Describe the major types of genomic changes that are important in cellular and organism evolution.
  • Compare and contrast cellular structure and function in eubacteria, archae and eukaryotes in the context of their evolutionary history.
  • Construct an explanation for the interrelatedness of photosynthesis and respiration in an evolutionary context.
Methods & Tools of Cell Biology
How do the methods and tools of cell biology enable and limit our understanding of the cell?
  • Assess the usefulness and limitations of information obtained different types of microscopy.
  • Describe different strategies to break open cells and isolate cellular organelles.
  • Give an example of how the study of temperature-sensitive mutants was instrumental in elucidating the details of a cellular pathway.
  • American Society of Cell Biology logo

American Society of Cell Biology

  • The American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB), founded in 1960, is an inclusive, international community of biologists studying the cell, the fundamental unit of life. They are dedicated to advancing scientific discovery, advocating sound research policies, improving education, promoting professional development and increasing diversity in the scientific workforce.

    Course Editor(s):

    • Jennifer Hood-DeGrenier
      Editor Degrees: 

      Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry & Molecular Pharmacology from Harvard University

      B.A. in Chemistry (Biochemistry & Molecular Biology concentration) from Williams College

      About Teaching and Course Source: 

      Although I began my academic journey in Chemistry, my research interests and experience place me firmly in the realm of Cell Biology. I have taught courses to all levels of undergraduate students (and some master's students) across the breadth of cell biology, including Introductory Cell and Molecular Biology, Cellular Physiology, Genetics, Biochemical Regulatory Mechanisms, Cancer Biology and Advanced Molecular Biology. My first goal in teaching is to get students excited about what they are learning. Cells and the molecules that make them are amazing things! I also want to equip them with the tools to gain new knowledge themselves, whether through searching the literature or conducting their own experiments. Finally, I want to help students become comfortable with not knowing the answer right away, but to have the confidence, patience, and perseverance to figure it out, often working collaboratively with their peers, with me as a facilitator rather than a leader.

      Whenever I have the opportunity to talk about teaching with colleagues, I always learn something useful that I can apply in my own teaching. CourseSource provides a way to interact with a much larger group of colleagues and to pool our collective knowledge about what teaching methods work best. I am excited to be involved in disseminating this valuable resource to promote best practices in teaching to a wide audience in an open-access format.

    • Leocadia Paliulis
      Leocadia Paliulis
      Editor Degrees: 

      Ph.D. in Cell Biology from Duke University

      B.A. in Biology (Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Concentration) from Williams College

      About Teaching and Course Source: 

      I am a Professor of Biology at Bucknell University.  I started studying chromosome movements during cell division when I was an undergraduate, and have continued to do so through my graduate program at Duke University and my postdoc at the University of North Carolina.  I began my commitment to undergraduate education as a SPIRE Postdoctoral Fellow at UNC.  I continued that commitment as a faculty member at Bucknell University.  During my career I have taught undergraduate courses in a range of different areas of cell biology.

      I want my students to know, understand, and apply the information they learn, and to be excited about what they are learning.  Beyond that, I want students to be able to think critically.  I want them to understand how to identify and judge the merits of different options.  Facts are an essential foundation for critical thinking, but one cannot stop construction when the foundation is complete.  Thinking critically means making strong, fact-based arguments or hypotheses and testing them.  In every class I teach, my aim is to help students become critical thinkers who can participate constructively in our society, whether it be by using the material we cover in class directly in a research or medical career or by using the information and critical thinking skills they get through my classes in their everyday lives.

      I am very happy to join CourseSource, a journal that promotes scientific teaching and critical thinking among faculty and students.

    • Scott Gehler
      Scott Gehler
      Editor Degrees: 

      Ph.D. in Neuroscience, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

      B.A. in Biology and Psychology, Cornell College

      About Teaching and Course Source: 

      During my time teaching, I have taught undergraduate students at all levels, including an introductory level cell biology course, Human Physiology, Cancer Biology, Nutrition, and various senior-level capstone experiences. Two general principles guide my approach to teaching. First, I challenge students to integrate seemingly disparate concepts by applying their understanding to real-life problems. By doing so, students work on questions and problems that are relevant to them as they ‘do’ the subject. Also, students learn to integrate information into a larger conceptual framework that is constantly being modified and expanded during the course in order to reinforce deep learning. Second, I attempt to help students develop interdisciplinary perspectives within and outside the boundaries of the biological sciences. Biology does not happen in a vacuum, so why should it be taught that way? Through forming connections across disciplines within and outside the sciences, students might better understand the ways disciplines influence and support each other. As a result, students can be equipped with the perspectives and skills necessary to be successful in a rapidly evolving and changing field.

      There are so many ideas and options supported by the SOTL literature for instructors to actively engage their students in the learning process. However, it can be extremely daunting coming up with ways to transform and implement those ideas into a course. CourseSource provides intentional, innovative, and engaging activities that have been developed by a community of colleagues across institutions in order to promote active learning in the classroom and the laboratory.