4.4: Prokaryotic Cells
Prokaryotes are small unicellular organisms in the domains Archaea and Bacteria. Bacteria include many common organisms such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli, while the Archaea include extremophiles that live in harsh environments, such as volcanic springs.
Like eukaryotic cells, all prokaryotic cells are surrounded by a plasma membrane and have DNA that contains the genetic instructions, cytoplasm that fills the interior of the cell, and ribosomes that synthesize proteins. However, unlike eukaryotic cells, prokaryotes lack a nucleus or other membrane-bound intracellular organelles. Their cellular components generally float freely within the cytoplasm, although their DNA—usually consisting of a single, circular chromosome—is clustered within a region called the nucleoid.
Inside the cytoplasm, many prokaryotes have small circular pieces of DNA called plasmids. These are distinct from the chromosomal DNA in the nucleoid and tend to have just a few genes—such as genes for antibiotic resistance. Plasmids are self-replicating and can be transmitted between prokaryotes.
Most prokaryotes have a cell wall made of peptidoglycan that lies outside of their plasma membrane, which physically protects the cell and helps it maintain osmotic pressure in different environments. Many prokaryotes also have a sticky capsule layer that covers their cell wall, allowing the organisms to stick to a substrate or each other, providing additional protection.
While prokaryotes don not have membrane-bound organelles, some have infoldings of the plasma membrane that carry out specialized functions—such as photosynthesis in cyanobacteria. Therefore, although prokaryotes are simple compared to eukaryotes, they do have some unique structures that help them carry out complex functions and allow them to live in a wide variety of environments.