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The term cilia is Latin for "eyelashes." Common in single-cell organisms, these hair-like structure wave to move the cell around or to move something around the cell. Cilia also are present on most cells in the human body. Some tissues in the body, such as the Fallopian tubes in women and the trachea, also have a special type of cilia that help transport substances along the tissues' surfaces.
Types of Cilia in the Body
In the body, cilia on the surface of tissues are responsible for protecting a person from germs in the lungs and for pushing an ovum through the Fallopian tube, among other tasks. These cilia are called motile cilia, and they are found in groups and beat in waves. Primary cilia, on the other hand, usually are found only one at a time on cells.
The structure of a single cilium is much like a tube, and its long fibers are called microtubules. These microtubules often pair up to form doublets, which in turn form a ring. The cross-section of doublets of microtubules looks like a figure 8, because the two microtubules stick together along a line. Nine doublets form the larger ring in what is known as a 9-2 pattern. When kinesin binds to one side of the doublets and not the other, the cilium flexes and curves, similar to the way a person's skeletal muscles contract.
Single-celled eukaryotes, which are organisms with cells that have a nucleus, often use cilia to move through liquid. This type of organism is surrounded by a cytoskeleton, made of protein filaments that allow the cell to hold its shape. A cilium attaches to the cytoskeleton of the cell with a basal body, the way a root attaches hair to human skin.
The rhythm of waving cilia is controlled by centrioles, which are organelles located inside the cell wall. Mitochondria, other units inside the cell, provide adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a source of cellular energy, for the cilia. The ATP directs the chemical kinesin to bind to certain parts of the cilia that control their movement. Thus, the cilia are able to beat or essentially swim their way through viscous liquid.
Similar to cilia, flagella are longer such hairs, usually found in ones or twos, such as the tail of a sperm. They share many characteristics with cilia, but they also occur on prokaryotes, which are organisms with cells that do not contain a nucleus. Some eukaryotes that use cilia and flagella to move are also found in ferns, on algae, on bacteria and inside many animals. This adaptation originally allowed independent cellular creatures, such as paramecia, to move around in search of food, rather than wait until food came to them. Cells that are part of larger systems have continued to use cilia to their advantage.