MCAT Content / Cytoskeleton / Composition And Function Of Cilia And Flagella

Composition and function of cilia and flagella

Topic: Cytoskeleton

Flagella and cilia are microtubule-based structures that either help cells to move themselves forward as in the case of flagella or substances along the outer surface of the cell as by cilia.

Flagella (singular = flagellum) are long, wavy structures that extend from the plasma membrane and are used to move an entire cell. A well known example of a cell with a flagellum is sperm. When present, the cell has just one flagellum or a few flagella. Worthy to note here, that bacterial flagella has a different structure than eukaryotic flagella.

When cilia (singular = cilium) are present, however, many of them extend along the entire surface of the plasma membrane. They are short, hair-like structures that are used to move entire cells or substances along the outer surface of the cells. An example of cilia in the human body is the cilia lining of the respiratory tract that trap particulate matter and move it toward your nostrils for exit from the body.

Despite their differences in length and number, flagella and cilia share a common structural arrangement of microtubules called a “9 + 2 array.” This name denotes a ring of nine microtubule doublets surrounding two central microtubules. The motor proteins called dyneins are attached to each of the nine doublets. Dyneins make possible the bending movement of flagella and cilia.

As it extends from plasma membrane, the “9+2 array” structure is covered (or “sheathed”) by the membrane. At its base, also named as basal body, central microtubules disappear and “9+2” turns to a “9+0” structure. Also, instead of nine doublets, nine triplets exist in the basal body, similar to centrioles.

Practice Questions

Khan Academy

The evolution of gecko toepads

 MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)


Key Points

• Flagella are long, wavy structures that extend from the plasma membrane and are used to move an entire cell.

• Cilia are short, hair-like structures that are used to move entire cells or substances along the outer surface of the cell.

• Both flagella and cilia have similar structures; 9 doublets of microtubules arranged in a ring-like fashion with two central microtubules at the center.


Key Terms

flagellum: a lash-like appendage that protrudes from the cell body of certain prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells that help move the entire cell

cilia: short, hair-like structures that are used to move entire cells or substances along the outer surface of the cell

microtubule: hollow, protein-based tubes that exist in eukaryotic cells and help cells move material around itself and resist compression.

centriole: cylinder of nine triples of microtubules attached to each other via proteins.



Billing Information
We had trouble validating your card. It's possible your card provider is preventing us from charging the card. Please contact your card provider or customer support.
{{ cardForm.errors.get('number') }}
{{ registerForm.errors.get('zip') }}
{{ registerForm.errors.get('coupon') }}
Tax: {{ taxAmount(selectedPlan) | currency spark.currencySymbol }}

Total Price Including Tax: {{ priceWithTax(selectedPlan) | currency spark.currencySymbol }} / {{ selectedPlan.interval | capitalize }}