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Cell biology

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Cell biology explores the fascinating and diverse world of cells, from single-celled micro-organisms to the specialised cells that form complex tissues in plants and animals. It develops the key aspects of cell and molecular biology introduced in Questions in Science (S111), Science: concepts and practice (S112) and Science and health: an evidence-based approach (SDK100). It explores the origins of cells and the generation of cell diversity, as well as the common features of cellular structure and function – how they obtain energy, synthesise new molecules, communicate, proliferate and survive. There is an emphasis on the fundamental importance of cell biology in modern science, particularly in relation to cell technologies and health.

What you will study

The module is structured as three blocks, each comprising a printed book and supporting multimedia, including video, animations and interactive activities, all delivered via a website.

The first block, Generating Diversity, begins with a discussion of current theories about the origins and evolution of cells, and an exploration of the diversity seen among modern day cells. You will then look in detail at the subcellular structures where essential cell processes take place. You’ll also be introduced to genetics; how characteristics are inherited, and how the information in a cell’s genome directs and controls the synthesis of thousands of different proteins, the versatile molecules that form much of the cell’s structure and perform many of its functions.

In the second block, Working Cells, you will consider in more detail the molecular and structural basis for many of the biochemical activities that are common to all cells: the structure and function of proteins; the role of cell membranes; transport of substances into and out of cells and between different parts of the cell; how cells capture and use energy; and how cells transmit, receive and respond to signals from their environment.

The final block, Challenging Cells starts by exploring the life and death of cells with reference to disease and other abnormal processes – how cells proliferate, age and die, and the mechanisms that allow cells in a complex organism to diversify into different specialised forms. Through a series of brief case studies you will look at the application of cell and molecular biology to health science and biotechnology. These include topics related to gene technology, stem cell technology, novel antimicrobial agents and microbial fuel cells.

By the end of the module you will be able to:

  • demonstrate a broad understanding of fundamental concepts, principles and theories relating to cell biology, genetics and microbiology
  • appreciate that our knowledge of complex cellular functions is based on observation and experiment
  • appreciate the importance of cell biology in modern technologies and medicine.
The module also develops key skills including data interpretation, collaborative working and accessing and reading articles on cell biology.

Entry requirements

There are no formal entry requirements to study this module.

However, this is an OU Level 2 module, so you’ll need study skills appropriate for this level of science study, obtained either by OU Level 1 study or by equivalent study with another higher education institution. You’re likely to find parts of this module difficult if you have no knowledge of biology.

We recommend you’ve studied one of our key introductory OU Level 1 modules:

  • Questions in science (S111)
  • Science: concepts and practice (S112)
  • Science and health (SDK100)
  • or the discontinued modules S104 or SDK125

Our booklet Are you ready for S294? will help you find out whether or not you’re ready to study this module.

If you’re still not sure you’re ready, talk to an adviser.

What's included

Three printed books. Study guide, activities, glossary, assignments, forums and other resources all provided via a dedicated website.

Computing requirements

A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

A desktop or laptop computer with either an up-to-date version of Windows or macOS.

The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will be supported by a tutor who will help you with the study material, mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. There will be a number of online tutorials that you can join and access via your computer.

Some activities involve collaborative work among the students in your tutor group, conducted online via the online forums with support from your tutor. Participation in collaborative activities is essential to enable you to complete some of the assessed work for this module.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

The first three TMAs will focus strongly on learning through practice and the feedback you receive on your answers will help you to improve your knowledge and understanding of the study material and to develop important skills associated with the module, as well as prepare you for the written examination. The final TMA and the examination will contribute to your overall score for the module and assess key skills developed in the module as well as knowledge and understanding of the core topics.

Residential school

S294, S295 and SK299 students have the choice to attend a laboratory school run by The Open University. These four-day programmes focus on laboratory work.

SS022 Laboratory skills for biology and health is in June at The Open University in Milton Keynes.

For students who started S294 in October 2018, the additional cost is £230 – we expect to confirm the cost for students starting S294 in October 2019 by July. You must also pay for travel to and from the venue, accommodation, and food.

Booking will begin in April – further details will be on the module website.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying S294 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Cell biology (S294) starts once a year – in October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2020.

It will start for the last time in October 2021. A new module, Investigating human health and disease (S290) is planned to start for the first time in October 2021.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
No residential school

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