What is Cytology? - Definition & History

What is Cytology? - Definition & History
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  • 0:02 What Is Cytology?
  • 0:32 Early History
  • 2:21 Modern Cytology
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ruth Ann Steinbrecher

Ruth Ann has taught college-level Science and has a master's degree in Biology.

In this lesson, learn the definition of cytology and meet the scientists responsible for its origins. Discover the importance of advances in cytology, and see how cytology is used in our modern world.

What Is Cytology?

To define cytology, we can break down the word into two parts. The suffix -logy, or -ology means the 'study of.' To find out what we're studying, we look to the prefix cyto, which means 'cell' and is derived from the Greek word kytos, meaning 'hollow vessel' or 'container.' Put these two together, and we have our definition: cytology is the study of cells. More specifically, cytology is a branch of science that studies how cells work and grow and what they're made of.

Early History

The history of cell science is closely linked with the invention and advancement of the microscope. Robert Hooke was the first scientist to use the word 'cell' in 1665 when he looked at slices of cork through a lit compound microscope (a microscope with two or more lenses) and observed very small, irregular boxes that reminded him of tiny rooms, or cells. Hooke wrote about his findings and drew the structures he saw in his book Micrographia, which was published in 1665.

We now know that the small 'cells' Hooke observed were actually the walls of plant cells that had died. Anton van Leeuwenhoek used a more powerful magnifying microscope to look more closely at specimens found in human body fluids in 1683. He noticed tiny specimens that were capable of movement and, therefore, alive. Van Leeuwenhoek named these little moving objects animalcules. With his more advanced microscope, Van Leewenhoek was even able to observe structures within cells, including the nucleus of a red blood cell.

The importance of cells to all forms of life was not fully recognized until the development of cell theory. The earliest (classical) cell theory was developed in the 1838 by plant scientist Matthias Schleiden and animal scientist Theodor Schwann. They each came to the same conclusion that the living things they studied were composed of cells. The classical cell theory summarized the ideas of the previously mentioned scientists into the following points:

  • All organisms are made up of one or more cells
  • Cells are the fundamental functional and structural units of life

In 1858, Rudolf Virchow added to the classical cell theory with the idea that:

  • Cells only come from other cells

Modern Cytology

The late 19th century showed further advancement in cell biology, with more and more scientists coming up with ways to grow, study, and manipulate tissues and cells outside of a living body in a lab. Early 'cell food' mixtures included water, salt, sugar, and chemicals to control the levels of acid in the solution. Synthetic cell food, called cell media, was improved by adding amino acids and vitamins to the solutions.

New ways to look at cells under the microscope were made possible by the staining of cells. Special dyes were added to cells to make them easier to observe as far back as 1891. Now, there are many kinds of cellular staining, from simple dyes that absorb into different parts of the cell to chemicals that can make cells literally light up under the microscope.

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