AskDefine | Define multicellular

Dictionary Definition

multicellular adj : consisting of many cells; "multicellular organisms"

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. biology of an organism That has many cells, often differentiated in function.



Extensive Definition

Multicellular organisms are organisms consisting of more than one cell, and having differentiated cells that perform specialized functions. Most life that can be seen with the naked eye is multicellular, as are all members of the kingdoms Plantae and Animalia (except for specialized organisms such as Myxozoans in the case of the latter).

Organizational levels

Multicellular organisms such as sponges consist of multiple specialized cellular types cooperating together for a common goal. These cell types include Choanocytes, digestive cells; Sclerocytes, support-structure-secreting cells; Porocytes, tubular pore cells; and Pinacocytes, epidermal cells. Though the different cell types create an organized, macroscopic multicellular structure—the visible sponge—they are not organized into true interconnected tissues. This is illustrated by the fact that a sponge broken up using cheese cloth and a very specific ion cocktail (the classical blender experiment does NOT work) will reaggregate from the surviving cells. If individually separated, however, the particular cell types cannot survive alone. Simpler colonial organisms, such as Volvox, differ in that their individual cells are free-living and can survive on their own if separated from the colony.


More complex organisms such as jellyfish, coral, and sea anemones possess a tissue level of organization, in which differentiated, interconnected cells perform specialized functions as a group. For instance, jellyfish tissues include an epidermis and nerve net that perform protective and sensory functions, along with an inner gastrodermis that performs digestive functions. The overall spatial organization of differentiated cells is a topic of study in anatomy.

Organs and organ systems

Even more complex organisms, while also possessing differentiated cells and tissues, possess an organ level of development, wherein multiple tissues group to form organs with a specific function or functions. Organs can be as primitive as the brain of a flatworm (merely a grouping of ganglion cells), as large as the stem of a sequoia (up to 90 meters (300 feet) in height), or as complex and multifunctional as a vertebrate liver.
The most complex organisms (such as mammals, trees, and flowers) have organ systems wherein groups of organs act together to perform complex related functions, with each organ focusing on a subset of the task. An example would be a vertebrate digestive system, in which the mouth and esophagus ingest food, the stomach crushes and liquifies it, the pancreas and gall bladder synthesize and release digestive enzymes, and the intestines absorb nutrients into the blood.

Evolutionary history

The oldest known taxonomically resolved multicellular organism is a red algae, Bangiomorpha pubescens, found fossilized in 1.2 billion year old rock from the Ectasian period of the Mesoproterozoic era.
In order to reproduce, true multicellular organisms must solve the problem of regenerating a whole organism from germ cells (i.e. sperm and egg cells), an issue that is studied in developmental biology. Therefore, the development of sexual reproduction in unicellular organisms during the Ectasian period is thought to have precipitated the development and rise of multicellular life.
Multicellular organisms also face the challenge of cancer, which occurs when cells fail to regulate their growth within the normal program of development.

Hypotheses for origin

There are various mechanisms which are disputed as being the first responsible for the emergence of multicellularity, but it is difficult to say which is correct. This is due to the fact that all the suggested mechanisms are viable, but establishing which was responsible for the first multicellular life requires mostly speculation.
One hypothesis is that a group of function-specific cells aggregated into a slug-like mass called a grex, which moved as a multicellular unit. Another hypothesis is that a primitive cell underwent nucleus division, thereby becoming a syncytium. A membrane would then form around each neucleus (and the cellular space and organelles occupied in the space), thereby resulting in a group of connected and specialised cells in one organism (this mechanism is observable in Drosophila). A third theory is that, as a unicellular organism divided, the daughter cells failed to separate, thereby resulting in a conglomeration of identical cells in one organism which could each then specialize.


multicellular in Arabic: عديد الخلايا
multicellular in Breton: Lieskellek
multicellular in Bulgarian: Многоклетъчно
multicellular in Catalan: Organisme pluricel·lular
multicellular in Czech: Mnohobuněčný organismus
multicellular in Welsh: Organeb amlgellog
multicellular in German: Mehrzeller
multicellular in Estonian: Hulkrakne organism
multicellular in Spanish: Pluricelular
multicellular in Basque: Zelulanitz
multicellular in French: Organisme pluricellulaire
multicellular in Galician: Pluricelular
multicellular in Korean: 다세포 생물
multicellular in Croatian: Višestanični organizmi
multicellular in Italian: Organismo pluricellulare
multicellular in Lithuanian: Daugialąstis organizmas
multicellular in Macedonian: Многуклеточен организам
multicellular in Dutch: Meercellig organisme
multicellular in Japanese: 多細胞生物
multicellular in Polish: Organizm wielokomórkowy
multicellular in Portuguese: Organismo multicelular
multicellular in Simple English: Multicellular organism
multicellular in Slovenian: Mnogoceličar
multicellular in Ukrainian: Багатоклітинні організми
multicellular in Urdu: کثیر خلوی
multicellular in Chinese: 多細胞生物
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