4.2: Cell Size
The size of cells varies widely among and within organisms. For instance, the smallest bacteria are 0.1 micrometers (μm) in diameter—about a thousand times smaller than many eukaryotic cells. Most other bacteria are larger than these tiny ones—between 1-10 μm—but they still tend to be smaller than most eukaryotic cells, which typically range from 10-100 μm.
Larger is not necessarily better when it comes to cells. For instance, cells need to take in nutrients and water through diffusion. The plasma membrane surrounding cells limits the rate at which these materials are exchanged. Smaller cells tend to have a higher surface area to volume ratio than larger cells. That is because changes in volume are not linear to changes in surface area. When a sphere increases in size, the volume grows proportional to the cube of its radius (r3), while its surface area grows proportional to only the square of its radius (r2). Therefore, smaller cells have relatively more surface area compared to their volume than larger cells of the same shape. A larger surface area means more area of the plasma membrane where materials can pass into and out of the cell. Substances also need to travel within cells. Hence the rate of diffusion may limit processes in large cells.
Prokaryotes are often small and divide before they face limitations due to cell size. Larger eukaryotic cells have organelles that facilitate intracellular transport. Also, structural changes help overcome limitations. Some cells that need to exchange large amounts of substances with the environment developed long, thin extrusions that maximize the surface area to volume ratio. An example of such structures are the root hairs of plant cells that facilitate the intake of water and nutrients. Therefore, cell size and surface area to volume ratio are crucial factors in the evolution of cellular characteristics.