4.5: The Nucleus
The nucleus is a membrane-bound organelle that contains a eukaryotic organism’s genetic instructions in the form of chromosomal DNA. This is distinct from the DNA in mitochondria or chloroplasts that carry out functions specific to those organelles. While some cells—such as red blood cells—do not have a nucleus, and others—such as skeletal muscle cells—have multiple nuclei, most eukaryotic cells have a single nucleus.
The DNA in the nucleus is wrapped around proteins such as histones, creating a DNA-protein complex called chromatin. When cells are not dividing—that is, when they are in the interphase part of their cell cycle—the chromatin is organized diffusely. This allows easy access to the DNA during the transcription process when messenger RNA (mRNA) is synthesized based on the DNA code. When a eukaryotic cell is about to divide, the chromatin condenses tightly into distinct, linear chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes in total.
Chromatin is particularly concentrated in a region of the nucleus called the nucleolus. The nucleolus is important for the production of ribosomes, which translate mRNA into protein. In the nucleolus, ribosomal RNA is synthesized and combined with proteins to create ribosomal subunits, which later form functioning ribosomes in the cytoplasm of the cell.
The interior of the nucleus is filled with a gel-like substance called nucleoplasm. A double membrane—consisting of two lipid bilayers—called the nuclear envelope surrounds the nucleus. Small protein-lined openings, called pores, dot the nuclear envelope, controlling which substances can enter and leave the nucleus. For example, the pores allow mRNA to leave the nucleus, so it can travel to the ribosomes to direct protein translation.