E. coli cells are usually around 1 x 1 x 3 microns
Yeast cells are little balls around 2 microns in diameter
Most human cells are roughly 20 microns across, with roughly nuclei about 10 microns in diameter.
Newt cells have 40 micron-diameter nuclei, and the cells are around 60 microns across.
Specialized cells in eukaryotes can be much longer (the long axons of neuron cells can be a meter or so in length), or larger (eggs of amphibians and birds are good examples)
The basic length scale used to describe molecules is a nanometer (1 nanometer = 1 nm = 10-9 meters)
Many biomolecules are made out of chemical units (e.g. nucleotides,
amino acids) which are around 1 nm in size, meaning that they are a few
atoms across. Other `small' molecules such as lipids and sugars are
also roughly on this length scale. Most folded up proteins are a
few nm in diameter. So, the nanometer is really useful as a basic
yardstick of biomolecules.
Another commonly used unit of length is the Angstrom (1 Angstrom = 10-10 m = 0.1 nanometer). Atoms are roughly Angstroms in size (a hydrogen atom is about 1 A in diameter, a carbon atom is about 2 A in diameter). You might read about Angstroms, and you should just immediately think of them as a tenth of a nanometer.
What is remarkable about biomolecules is that they can be made of many nm-size units, strung together to make long, linear polymers.
For example, the genetic DNAs in human cells are roughly 108 nucleotides in length; each nucleotide contributes a fraction of a nm, making the whole DNA a few centimeters long!
The wavelength of light is a bit shorter than one micron
Visible light ranges has a wavelength ranging from 650 nm (red) through 350 nm (violet). As you know from your introductory physics courses, the light microscope can only be used to image details in cells down to at the very best, about 1/2 of the wavelength being used. This means that we can't directly observe the structure of cells at scales smaller than about 100 nm.
In practice things are usually worse - usual white-light microscopes can't resolve detail smaller than about 250 nm, and heroic measures must be taken to observe with 100 nm detail.
This is important since it implies that all information about the molecular-scale operation of live cells must be gathered indirectly.
One important tool for looking at cells with higher resolution is the electron microscope, which uses electrons with sub-nm wavelengths to image at down to sub-nm resolution. Unfortunately at present, the electron microscope only works on samples in vacuum, and therefore on dead (and usually `fixed' or cross-linked) cells. In any case, because electrons scatter very strongly from water, the electron microscope can't be even conceivably be used at present to look into cells at the depths needed to observe their workings.
A way to image inside live cells at 10-nanometer spatial resolution
would be an extremely useful tool for someone to invent.
At room temperature, molecules are jiggling around continually due to thermal motion. In cells, everything is surrounded by water and so everything is being bumped continuously by neighboring molecules. All of this random motion gives rise to diffusion of individual molecules, which will be one of the topics discussed in detail later.
The energy associated with a single molecular degree of freedom, e.g. the linear motion of a molecule, or the energy of stretching of a chemical bond, is a fundamental physical quantity:
kBT = (Boltzmann's constant) x (absolute temperature)
Here Boltzmann's constant is kB = 1.38 x 10-23 Joules/Kelvin, and is a fundamental constant determined experimentally.
Remember that room temperature (25 C) in absolute terms is around 300 Kelvin (25 + 273.1 = 298.1 K to be more precise).
So kBT = 4.1 x 10-21 J is the relevant thermal energy of single molecular degrees of freedom (note that there is not much change over the range from around 270 K to 330 K relevant to most living things).
So now we can roughly estimate the velocity with which a water molecule
is moving in a glass of water (or in a cell) at 300 K.
Between collisions, a water molecule has kinetic energy which will be about the thermal energy:
The preceeding calculation puts us in good shape to understand a basic time scale associated with water and other small molecules - the typical time between successive collisions of a water molecule with its neighbors. We simply have
Over times longer than one collision time, molecules undergo random-walk or diffusive motion
After one collision, the direction of our water molecule will be changed in an difficult-to-predict way. After a few collisions there will be no chance to predict its direction of motion, or even where it is. This process is called diffusion, and we will discuss it in detail later. Diffusive motion is totally different from the straight-line motion we just considered. We'll see that a diffusing molecule has a relation between distance covered Dx and time interval Dt which is
Similarly, motion of larger molecules (e.g. large proteins or nucleic acids) occurs essentially by diffusion, in the absence of other forces. Biomolecules which are flexible additionally undergo random shape changes. We'll see that even moderately long molecules - a few thousand repeat units - can take microseconds to milliseconds to move.
Relevant time scales for us will include the time that it takes chemical reaction to occur, which if there are large energy barriers to cross, can be seconds or longer.
So - cells use units of energy which are appreciably larger than single
thermal excitations. This is crucial to avoid having thermal motion
simply bring the contents of a cell to thermal equilibrium - meaning death.
Generally we will be worried about energies on the order of a kBT, and distance over which such energies are transferred of a nm. So we can see that the rough forces that we will be talking about will be
For directed motions generated by e.g. burning of ATP in the cell, the steps will be a nm or so, and the energy used per step will be a few kBT, again giving forces in the few pN range.
So at the molecular scale, we will be worried about forces of around a pN.