We have studied the optical properties of mammalian cell suspensions to provide a mechanistic basis for interpreting the optical properties of tissues in vivo. Measurements of the wavelength dependence of the reduced scattering coefficient and measurements of the phase function demonstrated that there is a distribution of scatterer sizes. The volumes of the scatterers are equivalent to those of spheres with diameters in the range between ~0.4 and 2.0 μm. Measurements of isolated organelles indicate that mitochondria and other similarly sized organelles are responsible for scattering at large angles, whereas nuclei are responsible for small-angle scattering. Therefore optical diagnostics are expected to be sensitive to organelle morphology but not directly to the size and shape of the cells.