<< Chapter < Page Chapter >> Page >
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Name examples of prokaryotic and eukaryotic organisms
  • Compare and contrast prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells
  • Describe the relative sizes of different kinds of cells
  • Explain why cells must be small

Cells fall into one of two broad categories: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Only the predominantly single-celled organisms of the domains Bacteria and Archaea are classified as prokaryotes (pro- = “before”; -kary- = “nucleus”). Cells of animals, plants, fungi, and protists are all eukaryotes (ceu- = “true”) and are made up of eukaryotic cells.

Components of prokaryotic cells

All cells share four common components: 1) a plasma membrane, an outer covering that separates the cell’s interior from its surrounding environment; 2) cytoplasm, consisting of a jelly-like cytosol within the cell in which other cellular components are found; 3) DNA, the genetic material of the cell; and 4) ribosomes, which synthesize proteins. However, prokaryotes differ from eukaryotic cells in several ways.

A prokaryote    is a simple, mostly single-celled (unicellular) organism that lacks a nucleus, or any other membrane-bound organelle. We will shortly come to see that this is significantly different in eukaryotes. Prokaryotic DNA is found in a central part of the cell: the nucleoid    ( [link] ).

In this illustration, the prokaryotic cell has an oval shape. The circular chromosome is concentrated in a region called the nucleoid. The fluid inside the cell is called the cytoplasm. Ribosomes, depicted as small circles, float in the cytoplasm. The cytoplasm is encased by a plasma membrane, which in turn is encased by a cell wall. A capsule surrounds the cell wall. The bacterium depicted has a flagellum protruding from one narrow end. Pili are small protrusions that project from the capsule in all directions.
This figure shows the generalized structure of a prokaryotic cell. All prokaryotes have chromosomal DNA localized in a nucleoid, ribosomes, a cell membrane, and a cell wall. The other structures shown are present in some, but not all, bacteria.

Most prokaryotes have a cell wall and many have a polysaccharide capsule ( [link] ). Cell walls occur in all three Domains of life, however they are chemically different in each. Bacteria cells walls are polymer of a dissacharide called peptidoglycan linked together by short segments of amino acids for strength. Mammalian immune systems (and therefore, your immune system)can sense peptidoglycan and become activated by it. Even very small amounts of bacterial cell walls can make you very sick. For the bacterial cell, it acts as an extra layer of protection, helps the cell maintain its shape, and prevents dehydration. Capsules are a sticky layer of polysaccharide that help the bacterial cell hide from your immune system, survive in dry environments (like door handles and urinary catheters) and stick to surfaces (like counter tops or the cells lining your airways). Some prokaryotes have flagella, pili, or fimbriae. Flagella are used for locomotion. Pili are used to exchange genetic material during a type of reproduction called conjugation. Fimbriae are used by bacteria to attach to a host cell.

Career connection


The most effective action anyone can take to prevent the spread of contagious illnesses is to wash his or her hands. Why? Because microbes (organisms so tiny that they can only be seen with microscopes) are ubiquitous. They live on doorknobs, money, your hands, and many other surfaces. If someone sneezes into his hand and touches a doorknob, and afterwards you touch that same doorknob, the microbes from the sneezer’s mucus are now on your hands. If you touch your hands to your mouth, nose, or eyes, those microbes can enter your body and could make you sick.

However, not all microbes (also called microorganisms) cause disease; most are actually beneficial. You have microbes in your gut that make vitamin K. Other microorganisms are used to ferment beer and wine.

Microbiologists are scientists who study microbes. Microbiologists can pursue a number of careers. Not only do they work in the food industry, they are also employed in the veterinary and medical fields. They can work in the pharmaceutical sector, serving key roles in research and development by identifying new sources of antibiotics that could be used to treat bacterial infections.

Environmental microbiologists may look for new ways to use specially selected or genetically engineered microbes for the removal of pollutants from soil or groundwater, as well as hazardous elements from contaminated sites. These uses of microbes are called bioremediation technologies. Microbiologists can also work in the field of bioinformatics, providing specialized knowledge and insight for the design, development, and specificity of computer models of, for example, bacterial epidemics.

Cell size

At 0.1 to 5.0 μm in diameter, prokaryotic cells are significantly smaller than eukaryotic cells, which have diameters ranging from 10 to 100 μm ( [link] ). The small size of prokaryotes allows ions and organic molecules that enter them to quickly diffuse to other parts of the cell. Similarly, any wastes produced within a prokaryotic cell can quickly diffuse out. This is not the case in eukaryotic cells, which have developed different structural adaptations to enhance intracellular transport.

Part a: Relative sizes on a logarithmic scale, from 0.1 nm to 1 m, are shown. Objects are shown from smallest to largest. The smallest object shown, an atom, is about 1 nm in size. The next largest objects shown are lipids and proteins; these molecules are between 1 and 10 nm. Bacteria are about 100 nm, and mitochondria are about 1 greek mu m. Plant and animal cells are both between 10 and 100 greek mu m. A human egg is between 100 greek mu m and 1 mm. A frog egg is about 1 mm, A chicken egg and an ostrich egg are both between 10 and 100 mm, but a chicken egg is larger. For comparison, a human is approximately 1 m tall.
This figure shows relative sizes of microbes on a logarithmic scale (recall that each unit of increase in a logarithmic scale represents a 10-fold increase in the quantity being measured).

Small size, in general, is necessary for all cells, whether prokaryotic or eukaryotic. Let’s examine why that is so. First, we’ll consider the area and volume of a typical cell. Not all cells are spherical in shape, but most tend to approximate a sphere. You may remember from your high school geometry course that the formula for the surface area of a sphere is 4πr 2 , while the formula for its volume is 4πr 3 /3. Thus, as the radius of a cell increases, its surface area increases as the square of its radius, but its volume increases as the cube of its radius (much more rapidly). Therefore, as a cell increases in size, its surface area-to-volume ratio decreases. This same principle would apply if the cell had the shape of a cube ( [link] ). If the cell grows too large, the plasma membrane will not have sufficient surface area to support the rate of diffusion required for the increased volume. In other words, as a cell grows, it becomes less efficient. One way to become more efficient is to divide; another way is to develop organelles that perform specific tasks. These adaptations lead to the development of more sophisticated cells called eukaryotic cells.

Art connection

On the left, a sphere 1 mm in diameter is encased in a box of the same width. On the right, the same sphere is encased in a box 2 mm in diameter.
Notice that as a cell increases in size, its surface area-to-volume ratio decreases. When there is insufficient surface area to support a cell’s increasing volume, a cell will either divide or die. The cell on the left has a volume of 1 mm 3 and a surface area of 6 mm 2 , with a surface area-to-volume ratio of 6 to 1, whereas the cell on the right has a volume of 8 mm 3 and a surface area of 24 mm 2 , with a surface area-to-volume ratio of 3 to 1.

Prokaryotic cells are much smaller than eukaryotic cells. What advantages might small cell size confer on a cell? What advantages might large cell size have?

Section summary

Prokaryotes are predominantly single-celled organisms of the domains Bacteria and Archaea. All prokaryotes have plasma membranes, cytoplasm, ribosomes, and DNA that is not membrane-bound. Most have peptidoglycan cell walls and many have polysaccharide capsules. Prokaryotic cells range in diameter from 0.1 to 5.0 μm.

As a cell increases in size, its surface area-to-volume ratio decreases. If the cell grows too large, the plasma membrane will not have sufficient surface area to support the rate of diffusion required for the increased volume.

Questions & Answers

how do you translate this in Algebraic Expressions
linda Reply
why surface tension is zero at critical temperature
Need to simplify the expresin. 3/7 (x+y)-1/7 (x-1)=
Crystal Reply
. After 3 months on a diet, Lisa had lost 12% of her original weight. She lost 21 pounds. What was Lisa's original weight?
Chris Reply
what is biological synthesis of nanoparticles
Sanket Reply
what's the easiest and fastest way to the synthesize AgNP?
Damian Reply
types of nano material
abeetha Reply
I start with an easy one. carbon nanotubes woven into a long filament like a string
many many of nanotubes
what is the k.e before it land
what is the function of carbon nanotubes?
I'm interested in nanotube
what is nanomaterials​ and their applications of sensors.
Ramkumar Reply
what is nano technology
Sravani Reply
what is system testing?
preparation of nanomaterial
Victor Reply
Yes, Nanotechnology has a very fast field of applications and their is always something new to do with it...
Himanshu Reply
good afternoon madam
what is system testing
what is the application of nanotechnology?
In this morden time nanotechnology used in many field . 1-Electronics-manufacturad IC ,RAM,MRAM,solar panel etc 2-Helth and Medical-Nanomedicine,Drug Dilivery for cancer treatment etc 3- Atomobile -MEMS, Coating on car etc. and may other field for details you can check at Google
anybody can imagine what will be happen after 100 years from now in nano tech world
after 100 year this will be not nanotechnology maybe this technology name will be change . maybe aftet 100 year . we work on electron lable practically about its properties and behaviour by the different instruments
name doesn't matter , whatever it will be change... I'm taking about effect on circumstances of the microscopic world
how hard could it be to apply nanotechnology against viral infections such HIV or Ebola?
silver nanoparticles could handle the job?
not now but maybe in future only AgNP maybe any other nanomaterials
I'm interested in Nanotube
this technology will not going on for the long time , so I'm thinking about femtotechnology 10^-15
can nanotechnology change the direction of the face of the world
Prasenjit Reply
At high concentrations (>0.01 M), the relation between absorptivity coefficient and absorbance is no longer linear. This is due to the electrostatic interactions between the quantum dots in close proximity. If the concentration of the solution is high, another effect that is seen is the scattering of light from the large number of quantum dots. This assumption only works at low concentrations of the analyte. Presence of stray light.
Ali Reply
the Beer law works very well for dilute solutions but fails for very high concentrations. why?
bamidele Reply
how did you get the value of 2000N.What calculations are needed to arrive at it
Smarajit Reply
Privacy Information Security Software Version 1.1a
Got questions? Join the online conversation and get instant answers!
QuizOver.com Reply
Practice Key Terms 2

Get the best Algebra and trigonometry course in your pocket!

Source:  OpenStax, Cell structure & Function (gpc). OpenStax CNX. Feb 26, 2014 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11583/1.3
Google Play and the Google Play logo are trademarks of Google Inc.

Notification Switch

Would you like to follow the 'Cell structure & Function (gpc)' conversation and receive update notifications?