Microvilli vs. Cilia: Structure & Size

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  • 0:02 What Are Microvilli & Cilia?
  • 1:31 Comparing Structures
  • 2:38 Comparing Sizes
  • 3:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joanne Abramson

Joanne has taught middle school and high school science for more than ten years and has a master's degree in education.

Even though microvilli and cilia may appear similar at first glance, they are very different. This lesson discusses the similarities and many differences between these two microscopic cellular structures.

What Are Microvilli and Cilia?

At first glance, a cell phone and a television remote control may seem very similar. They are both found in your home, they are rectangular objects that fit in your hand, and they both have buttons covering one side. They often have very similar coloring as well. However, as you well know, they serve completely different functions.

The same can be said for microvilli and cilia. They are both microscopic, hair-like structures that are found lining cells in your body, but that's where their similarities end.

Microvilli, plural of microvillus, comes from the Greek word mikros, meaning ''small,'' and the Latin term villus, meaning ''hair.'' They are folds of the cell membrane that extend outward from the surface of certain cells. Microvilli are found in areas of the body which are specialized for absorption, such as the digestive tract or kidneys. They function by increasing the surface area of the cell membrane, thus allowing for more materials to be absorbed into the cell at a quicker rate. Unlike cilia, microvilli do not move.

Cilia, plural for cilium, is the Latin word for ''eyelashes.'' They also resemble tiny hairs on the surface of certain cells. Many cilia move in a rhythmic, sweeping motion and serve to move particles or cells in your body. For example, the cilia lining your respiratory tract brush your airways free of mucus, dust, and dirt, helping you to breathe easier.

Comparing Structures

Both microvilli and cilia consist of protein fibers that extend outward from the cell and provide shape for the structures. These protein fibers are covered by extensions of the cell membrane that serve to protect them. However, the type and arrangement of the protein fibers differ between cilia and microvilli.

Cilia are composed of larger, hollow tubes called microtubules. The microtubules are arranged in a circle and are anchored to the cell by a structure at the base of the cilium referred to as a basal body.

Microvilli contain tiny fibers called actin filaments that extend parallel to each other down the length of the microvillus. The filaments are attached to each other and to the cell membrane by bundles of protein that run perpendicularly across the actin filaments.

cillia vs microvilli

Let's more properly visualize this. Take a look at the image. On the left, you can see that the cilia have microtubules anchored to the basal body. On the right, you can see the microvilli run parallel to each other and are connected by villin.

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