SEM micrograph of the cilia projecting from respiratory epithelium in the lungs

A cilium (plural cilia) is an organelle found in eukaryotic cells. Cilia are slender protuberances that project from the much larger cell body.[1]

There are two types of cilia:

  1. motile cilia, which beat against fluid outside the cell.
  2. non-motile, or primary cilia, which typically serve as sensory organelles.

In eukaryotes, cilia and flagella together make up a group of organelles known as undulipodia.[2] Eukaryotic cilia are structurally identical to eukaryotic flagella, although distinctions are sometimes made according to function and/or length.[3]

Motile cilia are found on protist ciliates like Paramecium. They are how Paramecium moves around. They are also found on the epithelial cells of many internal organs of metazoans, such as the digestive system and the trachea of the lungs.

Cilia in metazoa

Non-motile (or primary) cilia usually occur one per cell; nearly all mammalian cells have a single non-motile primary cilium.[1] In addition, examples of specialized primary cilia can be found in human sensory organs such as the eye and the nose:

Status of cilia

Cilia are structurally almost identical with the much larger flagella. So much so that it has been proposed protists bearing either should be unified in the Phylum Undulipodia.[4] Previously, Margulis had proposed that the Ciliates alone should be placed in a Phylum Ciliophora.[5] Admittedly, the Protista is a collection of disparate single-celled forms, but while a more sophisticated taxonomy is in flux (changing), Protista is still a useful term.

Cilia and flagella are cell organelles, specialised units which carry out well-defined functions, like mitochondria and plastids. It is fairly certain now that all or most of these organelles have their origin in once-independent prokaryotes (bacteria or archaea), and that the eukaryote cell is a 'community of micro-organisms' working together in 'a marriage of convenience'.[6]

Cilia Media


  1. 1.0 1.1 Gardiner, Mary Beth (September 2005). "The importance of being cilia". HHMI Bulletin. Howard Hughes Medical Institute. 18 (2). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-03-11. Retrieved 2008-07-26.
  2. A Dictionary of Biology , 2004, accessed 2010-04-06.
  3. Haimo LT, Rosenbaum JL (December 1981). "Cilia, flagella, and microtubules". J. Cell Biol. 91 (3 Pt 2): 125s–130s. doi:10.1083/jcb.91.3.125s. PMC 2112827. PMID 6459327.
  4. Margulis L & Dolan M.F. 2002. Early life: evolution on the Precambrian Earth. 2nd ed, Jones & Bartlett, Boston. p89
  5. Margulis L. Schwartz K.V. & Dolan M. 1999. Diversity of life: the illustrated guide to the five kingdoms. Jones & Bartlett, Boston, p94. In this work the authors propose 19 phyla for the Protista, and call this 'Kingdom' the 'Protoctista', a term which is unfortunately almost unpronounceable.
  6. Margulis L. and McMenamin 1990. Marriage of convenience. The Sciences 30, 31-36.