A distinguishing feature of a living thing is that it reproduces independent of other living things. This reproduction occurs at the cellular level. In certain parts of the body, such as along the gastrointestinal tract, the cells reproduce often. In other parts of the body, such as in the nervous system, the cells reproduce less frequently. With the exception of only a few kinds of cells, such as red blood cells (which lack nuclei when fully mature), all cells of the human body reproduce.
In eukaryotic cells (see Chapter 3), the structure and contents of the nucleus are of fundamental importance to an understanding of cell reproduction. The nucleus contains the hereditary material (DNA) of the cell assembled into chromosomes. In addition, the nucleus usually contains one or more prominent nucleoli (dense bodies that are the site of ribosome synthesis).
The nucleus is surrounded by a nuclear envelope consisting of a double membrane that is continuous with the endoplasmic reticulum. Transport of molecules between the nucleus and cytoplasm is accomplished through a series of nuclear pores lined with proteins that facilitate the passage of molecules out of the nucleus. The proteins provide a certain measure of selectivity in the passage of molecules across the nuclear membrane.
The nuclear material consists of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) organized into long strands. The strands of DNA are composed of nucleotides bonded to one another by covalent bonds. DNA molecules are extremely long relative to the cell; there are approximately 6 feet of DNA in a single human cell. However, in the chromosome, the DNA is condensed and packaged with protein into manageable bodies. The mass of DNA material and its associated protein is chromatin.
To form chromatin, the DNA molecule is wound around globules of a protein called histone. The units formed in this way are nucleosomes. Millions of nucleosomes are connected by short stretches of histone protein, much like beads on a string. The configuration of the nucleosomes in a coil causes additional coiling of the DNA and the eventual formation of the chromosome.