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Five Great Cell Discoveries

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 3/30/2009

They're responsible for making you the person you are. But how well do you know your body's cells? To help you become more intimately acquainted with the tiny building blocks that make up your blood, tissues, and organs we've compiled a list of five of the greatest cell discoveries of all time.

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    Discovery of the Cell Nucleus

    In other words the 'brain' of the cell. It was discovered by the botanist Robert Brown whilst he was studying orchids and noticed opaque spots on the epidermis. His first use of the term was in 1831 in a paper to the prestigious Linnean Society, and it was published in 1833. At the time of the discovery Brown did not know that the nucleus was present in cells other than those that belonged to plants.

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    Mitochondria are the energy power houses of cells. They're involved in metabolism, and in the conversion of food into chemicals and chemical energy that cells can use. The discovery of these tiny organelles is not due to one specific person at one moment in time. It's a series of contributions over many years by a number of different scientists. 19th century brains involved in the identification of the mitochondria include Richard Altman, Albert von Kölliker, and Carl Benda who coined the term mitochondria in 1898.

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    The process of cell division known as mitosis was discovered by German biologist Walther Flemming in 1879. He observed it in animal cells and it's the process where a cell copies its contents including its genes and distributes them to two daughter cells. It is essential for the growth and survival of a multi-cellular organism.

    Mitotic cell division was independently identified in plant cells by Eduard Strasburger.

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    Ribosomes are the protein-making factories of the cell. They were discovered by cell biologist George Palade. Prior to this work in the 1950s these organelles were known as microsomes. With a combination of electron microscopy and fractionation, Palade showed that they had a high RNA content and were the protein-producing organelles.

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    Though Crick and Watson's 1953 paper on the structure of DNA was a pivotal moment in science history, DNA had actually been discovered many years before. The Swiss physician Frederick Miescher located DNA whilst studying leukocytes in pus. The year was 1869 and he did not know that it was the hereditary material. He called it 'nuclein' because it had come from the nucleus.