I was looking at one of David Goodsell's illustrations of a cell:

enter image description here

And it seems to suggest a very crowded picture of the intracellular environment. Just how crowded are cytoplasms? What percentage of the volume is typically taken up by protein, water, and other major species?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ According to this, that picture is probably pretty close. $\endgroup$ – user137 Mar 24 '15 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ What kind of cell? It would be best if you can specify a certain kind of cell, since protein content clearly varies between cells (eg a WT E. coli, vs one that is overexpressing a protein from a plasmid) $\endgroup$ – March Ho Mar 24 '15 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ @MarchHo Pick whichever one you want. $\endgroup$ – Superbest Mar 24 '15 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ I'm sure you're aware of this, but that picture is in no way an accurate representation of a real cell. $\endgroup$ – canadianer Mar 24 '15 at 23:39

The tricky part is to define what is the volume of a biomolecule as it is a folded chain full of bumps and holes. Water is all around and in the folded structure and is actually important to keep the conformation of at least some of the proteins/RNA/DNA.

At the same time we know that 60% of your body in mass is water. Let's visualize that. Bio molecules have roughly the same weight per volume than water. Now add into the equation that a good third of the filled actually is water due to the structure holes, adsorption etc. You now have roughly:

% empty space = 60%-(40%/3)= 47%

To help think about it imagine a grid with roughly one cell out of two being filled. That looks pretty crowded to me. Then you of course have variations with blood and secretions on one side and bones on the other but you have the big picture.

For an example look at an electron microscopy picture of a striated muscle cell: http://histology.med.umich.edu/sites/default/files/muscleQ4.jpg. It looks pretty much like the half filled grid isn't it? Of course seeing individual molecules is hard but the white space correspond to mostly empty space with a couple of actine fibers. The dark corresponds to actine+myosine fibers: an extremely tight space. And we have roughly half of each :-)


According to the Molecular Biology of the Cell, (4th Ed), the cell is ~70% water, the remaining 30% of which is composed of macromolecules (proteins, nucleic acids, and carbohydrates). While this is just a single citation, there are lots of other sources in the literature that cite similar values.

  • $\begingroup$ I'm afraid this is a description of the mass percentage while the question was about the volume. $\endgroup$ – cmbarbu Mar 25 '15 at 2:38

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