Public-key cryptosystems are based on (presumed) trap-door one-way functions. The public key gives information about the particular instance of the function; the private key gives information about the trap door. Whoever knows the trap door can perform the function easily in both directions, but anyone lacking the trap door can perform the function only in the forward direction. The forward direction is used for encryption and signature verification; the inverse direction is used for decryption and signature generation.
In almost all public-key systems, the size of the key corresponds to the size of the inputs to the one-way function; the larger the key, the greater the difference between the efforts necessary to compute the function in the forward and inverse directions (for someone lacking the trap door). For a digital signature to be secure for years, for example, it is necessary to use a trap-door one-way function with inputs large enough that someone without the trap door would need many years to compute the inverse function.