Cell Size Lab

When cells reach a certain size, their rate of growth slows down. They will eventually stop growing. Each of these cells divides into two smaller cells, which begin to grow. What causes this? An easy way to investigate such questions is to build models. A model is often thought of as a small copy of something larger. Here we will be making a larger model of something small.

When a cell becomes too large, it is no longer as efficient as it used to be. It now has a greater volume and it takes much longer for materials that enter the cell to reach the center of the cell. This concept will be demonstrated in the lab.

To build a model of a cell to understand why when cells reach a certain size they stop growing.

Block of phenolphthalein agar razor blade 100 ml 4% sodium hydroxide plastic spoon beaker, 250ml plastic table knife millimeter ruler paper towel

1. With the razor blade, cut the block of phenolphthalein agar into cubes. The first cube should be 3cm on each side; the second, 2 cm on each side; and the third, 1 cm on each side. Measure carefully and trim away the waste. Examine the cubes. Think of them as giant models of tiny cells.

Which of your three different-sized cells do you think would be most likely to survive? Why do you think so?

Materials used during cell activity and growth enter the cell from the outside and must travel through the cell to their destination. Waste products go through the cell surface to the outside. Do you think the cell with the greatest total surface area will do the best job of moving materials in and out of the cell? Why or why not?

2. Calculate the total surface area of each of your three models using the following formula: Surface area = 6 x (length x width x height), that is, the total surface area is 6 times the surface area of one side.

Which cell has the greatest surface area?

3. The  cells  have different surface areas and they have different volumes (amounts of materials inside). Calculate the volume of each cube. Volume = length x width x height.

Think of the prediction you make in #1. Do these new calculations change any of your earlier ideas? Why or why not?

4. Place the cubes in the beaker. Pour enough sodium hydroxide solution to cover them. Record your starting time. Use the plastic spoon to turn the cubes often for the next 4 minutes. Be careful not to cut or scratch the surface of the cubes. Blot them dry.

5. Slice each cube in half with the plastic knife. What differences do you see? Draw a 3cm, 2cm and 1cm square below and draw what you see. Measure the distance from the edge that the sodium hydroxide traveled and draw that below

6. Calculate the ratio of surface area to volume for each cube. To do this, for each cube size, divide its surface area by its volume. The number obtained can be expressed as a ration. For example, a surface area of 24cm2 divided by a volume of 3 cm3 = 24/3 = 8/1 = 8:1. 7. Fill in the following data chart with your calculations.

Which cell model is the most efficient? Why?

How does this demonstrate why larger cells would want to divide?

Teacher Notes:
The agar for this is made from regular agar agar with just a small amount of the indicator added so that the agar does not turn pink. It is a lot of fun and the kids really enjoy cutting out the agar cubes. Make plenty of agar, the kids like to play with it.

Questions? Comments??
Shannon Tice