Cell made a different discovery about cells.

Cell theory is a fundamental theory in biology that makes generalizations about cells. In this lesson, you’ll learn about the development of modern cell theory and the scientists behind it.

Cell Theory

When you encounter something that you don’t understand, one of the first things you might do is try to find an explanation for what you see. In science, these explanations are called theories. One of the fundamental theories in biology is cell theory, which refers to basic generalizations that modern science has made about cells as the basic units of life. Cell theory was developed in the mid-19th century and is one of the foundations of modern biology. Many scientists have made discoveries relating to cell theory, but three scientists are usually given credit for its development: Matthias Schleiden, Theodor Schwann, and Rudolf Virchow.

Together, these scientists put forth the three basic tenets of modern cell theory:

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  1. All living things are made up of cells.
  2. Cells are the basic units of structure and function in living things.
  3. Living cells come only from other living cells.

Early Discoveries

Cells were discovered long before cell theory was developed. Let’s go back for a moment and look at the early years of cell science. It all began in the late 1500s when a spectacle maker from the Netherlands, named Zacharias Janssen, invented the microscope. This invention provided a way to examine items up close and see things that weren’t otherwise visible. The idea caught on like wildfire in the science community, and it began to seem as if microscopes were being developed everywhere. Two scientific colleagues, English scientist Robert Hooke and Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek, both made important early discoveries in cell science using microscopes.Hooke was interested in looking at everything up close.

He was so interested in how things worked that he even let a louse bite him and watched it through the microscope as it sucked his blood. Hooke is credited with discovering and naming cells. While looking at a piece of cork through a microscope, he discovered what appeared to be many tiny rectangular rooms. He named them cells, which actually means ‘small rooms.

‘ The name stuck, and we still call these basic units cells today.Anton van Leeuwenhoek also liked to investigate by looking through a microscope. He was the first person to see living cells. These cells were unicellular organisms that he found while looking through a microscope at plaque scraped off his teeth. These early discoveries paved the way for further investigation, eventually leading to the development of cell theory in the mid-1800s.

Schleiden and Schwann

In the late 1830s, a German botanist named Matthias Schleiden observed that all plants were composed of cells. From this observation, he made the first general statement about cells.

He theorized that cells were the basic building blocks of all plants. Soon after Schleiden’s observation, a German zoologist named Theodor Schwann found that all animals were also composed of cells. Schwann modified Schleiden’s theory to create what would become the first two parts of modern cell theory:

  • All living things are made up of cells.
  • Cells are the basic units of structure and function in living things.

Virchow

A few years later, a German physician named Rudolf Virchow made a different discovery about cells. At the time, spontaneous generation was still considered possible. This is the idea that cells could be created from nonliving matter. While researching diseases, Virchow observed that all cells developed from existing cells. This contradicted the idea of spontaneous generation and helped to eventually disprove the theory.

In the 1850s, Virchow’s observation was added as the third principle of modern cell theory:

  • Living cells come only from other living cells.

Lesson Summary

With the invention of the microscope by Zacharias Janssen, scientists found a new way to investigate the world. Robert Hooke discovered cells while looking at a piece of cork through a microscope and Anton van Leeuwenhoek observed the first living cells.

This paved the way for modern cellular science.Three scientists are credited with the development of cell theory. Matthias Schleiden observed that all plants were made of cells; Theodor Schwann observed that all animals were also made of cells; and Rudolf Virchow observed that cells only come from other cells.

Modern cell theory was created from these observations and is summed up in the following three statements:

  1. All living things are made up of cells.
  2. Cells are the basic units of structure and function in living things.
  3. Living cells come only from other living cells.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson on cell theory aims to make it easy for you to subsequently:

  • Discuss the origins and three tenets of cell theory
  • Consider some of the early discoveries in cell science
  • Recognize the contributions of Schleiden, Schwann and Virchow
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