A cell type is a classification used to distinguish between morphologically or phenotypically distinct cell forms within a species. A multicellular organism may contain a number of widely differing and specialized cell types, such as muscle cells and skin cells in humans, that differ both in appearance and function yet are genetically identical. Cells are able to be of the same genotype, but different cell type due to the differential regulation of the genes they contain. Classification of a specific cell type is often done through the use of microscopy (such as those from the cluster of differentiation family that are commonly used for this purpose in immunology). Recent developments in single cell RNA sequencing facilitated classification of cell types based on shared gene expression patterns. This has led to the discovery of many new cell types in e.g. mouse cortex, hippocampus, dorsal root ganglion and spinal cord.
Animals have evolved a greater diversity of cell types in a multicellular body (100–150 different cell types), compared with 10–20 in plants, fungi, and protoctists.
All higher multicellular organisms contain cells specialised for different functions. Most distinct cell types arise from a single totipotent cell that differentiates into hundreds of different cell types during the course of development. Differentiation of cells is driven by different environmental cues (such as cell–cell interaction) and intrinsic differences (such as those caused by the uneven distribution of molecules during division). Multicellular organisms are composed of cells that fall into two fundamental types: germ cells and somatic cells. During development, somatic cells will become more specialized and form the three primary germ layers: ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm. After formation of the three germ layers, cells will continue to specialize until they reach a terminally differentiated state that is much more resistant to changes in cell type than its progenitors.
A list of cell types in the human body may include several hundred distinct types depending on the source.
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