3D Animal Cell Project (Model)

Photo: Divinemercy via Wikimedia Commons CC 3.0

Creating a 3D animal cell project is a great way to model and familiarize yourself with all the various organelles that make up an animal cell. Because of this, 3D cell models are frequently signed as projects for students in both middle school and high school classes.

If you have to create a 3D model of the cell for a class project, or simply want to create one for your own enrichment, this article will walk you through the various parts of an animal cell and suggest some objects you can use to create the 3D model.

Creating a 3D model of the cell will involve approximating the look of various organelles within the cell such as the nucleus, mitochondria, vesicles, and ribosomes. You can use ordinary household objects to represent these organelles, it doesn’t have to be expensive.

Parts of A 3D Animal Cell:

  • Cell Membrane
  • Nucleus
  • Cytosol – Cytoplasm
  • Endoplasmic Reticulum
  • Ribosomes
  • Vesicles
  • Golgi Body
  • Mitochondria
Photo: Mariana Ruiz via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Cell Membrane

The cell membrane is the substance that surrounds the entire cell. It keeps the contents of the cell within it, acting as a barrier that separates the cell’s interior from the outside world. The cell membrane is composed of a phospholipid bilayer, meaning that there are two layers of lipids which face in opposite directions. The lipid layers are made out of a phosphate head and a fatty acid tail.

Note that unlike plant cells, which have cell walls and cell membranes, animal cells don’t have cell walls and have only membranes. The arrangement of the bilayer helps control which substances move in and out of the cell, allowing smaller molecules like oxygen and carbon dioxide to penetrate through the cell membrane.

Since the cell membrane is very thin, you may decide just to use a Styrofoam ball with the outside surface representing the cell membrane. A section of the ball can be cut out for an interior view that will present the rest of the organelles.

Nucleus

The nucleus is frequently called the brain of the cell. This is because it functions as the control center for the entire cell. It’s also the largest part of the cell within the cell membrane. The nucleus is what controls the cell’s growth and replication. The nucleus has a smaller structure within it called the nucleolus which is responsible for the production of ribosomes (see below). The nucleus has small nuclear pores which allow the ribosomes to exit from the nucleus into the body of the cell.

A smaller Styrofoam sphere anchored inside the cutout portion of the larger sphere can easily serve as a nucleus.

Cytoplasm

The cytosol, also called cytoplasm (technically cytoplasm refers to the cytosol combined with all of the organelles found inside the cell), is a gelatin-esque liquid that fills the interior of the cell. The cytosol in a cell is mainly water, though floating within the cytosol are many different substances that the cell needs to survive and replicate like proteins. The cytoplasm of the cell frequently has filaments in it which give support and stability to the cell.

You may simply choose to paint the inside of the sphere a different color to denote the cytoplasm. However, some people choose to create Jell-O molds filled with sugar cubes or pieces of fruit as their 3-D cell model. The Jell-O represents the cytoplasm while the objects inside it represent the organelles.

Endoplasmic Reticulum

The endoplasmic reticulum consists of various kinds of membranes, which are linked together in a complex and winding system of sacs. The endoplasmic reticulum is responsible for synthesizing the protein that the cell will use. There are two sections of endoplasmic reticulum, the rough ER and the smooth ER. The rough ER is called the rough because it has ribosomes attached to the outside of it, while the smooth ER lacks these ribosomes. The smooth ER plays a role in the synthesis of lipids and in the breakdown of toxic substances.

Many people use sections of pipe cleaners linked together to represent the endoplasmic reticulum.

You may want to cut out a portion of a styrofoam sphere so you can style it like the depiction of the cell above. Photo: Mediran via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0

Ribosomes

While the ribosomes are synthesized within the cell’s nucleus, after leaving the nucleus the ribosomes can be found all around the cell. Many of the ribosomes are attached to the endoplasmic reticulum, but many of them are simply floating around within the cytoplasm. Ribosomes create proteins for the cell to use. This happens because the genetic instructions for proteins are carried by messenger RNA or mRNA to another type of RNA called tRNA (transfer RNA) which then carries the information to the ribosomes itself.

The ribosomes should be comparatively small when compared to the other organelles of the cell. For this reason, you may simply want to use small globs of paint to represent the ribosomes or other small objects such as pushpins.

Vesicles

Vesicles are small spheres that transport materials around the cell, and they’re responsible for moving substances between organelles. Vesicles can come in a variety of sizes and shapes, and there are even specialized vesicles called lysosomes which breaks down used up proteins and lipids, freeing up their constituent parts so that they may be recycled. Lysosomes also break down potentially dangerous macromolecules which find their way into the cell.

The vesicles of the cell should also be rather small compared to the nucleus and endoplasmic reticulum. Small objects such as beads or buttons can be used to represent the vesicles.

The Golgi Complex

The Golgi complex, often called the Golgi body, is where the proteins end up after they have been synthesized by the ribosomes located on the endoplasmic reticulum. The Golgi complex is frequently called the post office of the cell because it takes these proteins and then distributes them to their correct destinations. The Golgi body is composed of many different sacs and cisternae, similar to the endoplasmic reticulum, though in the case of the Golgi body the cisternae aren’t connected to one another.

Mitochondria

The mitochondria are organelles that convert the food an organism needs into energy. The glucose found in food is combined with oxygen to create carbon dioxide and water, and the energy found within it is converted into ATP. The different cells in an animal’s body will have a different number of mitochondria, depending on the type of cell and its functions. As an example, heart cells work harder than many other cells, and so they need more mitochondria.

The lysosomes, Golgi body, and mitochondria should all be smaller than the nucleus though not quite as small as the ribosomes. Medium-sized objects like bottle caps, peanuts, and Legos can all stand in for these organelles. You want to choose something that reflects the typical shape of these organelles. For example, lysosomes are typically circular and mitochondrion are typically oval-shaped.

How did your 3D animal cell turn out? Was the model part of a class project or just a fun at-home activity? Let us know in the comments below!

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