What is the Cytoskeleton?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The cytoskeleton is an important part of the cell structure. It spans the cytoplasm to provide support, shape, elasticity, and protection to the contents of the cell, much like the larger skeleton found in many living organisms. It was historically thought that only eukaryotic cells contained this structure, but study has revealed that some prokaryotes have it as well. Using microscopy techniques which include staining, researchers have been able to demonstrate the myriad forms which the cytoskeleton can take, and much has been learned about the architecture of the cytoskeleton.

A cytoskeleton gives an animal cell its shape.
A cytoskeleton gives an animal cell its shape.

This structure is made up of proteins which assemble themselves into actin filaments, intermediate filaments, and microtubules. One of the key functions of the cytoskeleton is to act as cellular scaffolding, providing support for the contents of the cell and anchoring the nucleus in place. When organelles need to move around inside the cell, they utilize this structure for support. The cytoskeleton also enables the cell itself to move with the assistance of tiny projections called cilia.

Another important role of the cytoskeleton is as a source of elasticity for the cell. This structure can break and repair itself, allowing cells to change shape to adapt to their environment. It also protects the vulnerable contents of the cell, and helps cells hold their shape when they are subjected to external pressures. Flexibility is an important trait for many cells to have, as there are a number of pressures which cells can be subjected to during their lifetimes.

Sometimes referred to with the acronym CSK, the cytoskeleton can be stained with fluorescent dyes. These dyes can be designed to be attracted to different components of the structure, and when viewed under a microscope, they illuminate the delicate details of the lattice of proteins which provides support to the cells. Very high magnification can also reveal the way in which structures such as microtubules are assembled and arranged inside the cell. This information can be used to learn more about cell function and what happens when there are problems with the structural components of cells.

Errors with the development of the cytoskeleton can impede cell function. For example, in sperm, if the cytoskeleton does not form properly, the motility of the sperm can be impaired, and it may not be able to function. If this occurs in large numbers of sperm, it can contribute to a decline in fertility and may be indicative of a medical problem.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Cytoskeleton is the easiest thing to look for when you are looking at onion cells.

This is the kind of cell most biology students study first, because it's so easy to see.

Just peel off the sort of thin, tissue like layer under a layer of onion. You can stain it to make it easier to see with any standard plant stain.

They are just in a single layer, so they are easy to pick out under a microscope, and all the cells are basically just the cytoskeleton and the nucleus.

This might not be very exciting for your students, so I would suggest also showing them some of the creatures you can see in pond water.

But, boring or not, this is the best way of showing them the basics of a cell, such as cytoskeleton and nucleus.


It's amazing to think that you have billions of cells with cytoskeletons in you, making you up right now. It's one thing to think of it as merely the skin that surrounds a cell, but when you consider how much it does and how complicated it is, I just find it incredible that there are so many of them around and we all just take it completely for granted.

I mean, there are so many cytoskeleton functions They can move cells around with their cilia, they can allow nutrients in and out of the cell, they can provide parts for organelles which are little packages that can move between cells and so many other things.

It makes me really want to go back to school and pay more attention in biology class.

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