How Big Can a Cell Get?

Diffusion and the Problem of Size

Rate of diffusion – (surface x concentration difference) / distance

The rate of exchange of substances therefore depends on the organism’s surface area that is in contact with the surroundings. The requirements for materials depends on the volume of the organism, so the ability to meet the requirements depends on the surface area : volume ratio. As organisms get bigger their volume and surface area both get bigger, but volume increases much more than surface area.

So as organisms get bigger their surface area/volume ratio gets smaller. A bacterium is all surface with not much inside, while a whale is all insides with not much surface. This means that as organisms become bigger it becomes more difficult for them to exchange materials with their surroundings. In fact this problem sets a limit on the maximum size for a single cell of about 100 mm. In anything larger than this materials simply cannot diffuse fast enough to support the reactions needed for life.


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