Overview of Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells

Characteristics of Prokaryotic Cells

A prokaryote is a simple, unicellular organism that lacks an organized nucleus or other membrane-bound organelle.

Learning Objectives

Describe the structure of prokaryotic cells

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Prokaryotes lack an organized nucleus and other membrane-bound organelles.
  • Prokaryotic DNA is found in a central part of the cell called the nucleoid.
  • The cell wall of a prokaryote acts as an extra layer of protection, helps maintain cell shape, and prevents dehydration.
  • Prokaryotic cell size ranges from 0.1 to 5.0 μm in diameter.
  • The small size of prokaryotes allows quick entry and diffusion of ions and molecules to other parts of the cell while also allowing fast removal of waste products out of the cell.

Key Terms

  • eukaryotic: Having complex cells in which the genetic material is organized into membrane-bound nuclei.
  • prokaryotic: Of cells, lacking a nucleus.
  • nucleoid: the irregularly-shaped region within a prokaryote cell where the genetic material is localized

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: a jelly-like cytosol within the cell in which other cellular components are found
  3. DNA: the genetic material of the cell
  4. ribosomes: where protein synthesis occurs


General Structure of a Prokaryotic Cell: 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.

However, prokaryotes differ from eukaryotic cells in several ways.

A prokaryote is a simple, single-celled (unicellular) organism that lacks an organized 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.

Most prokaryotes have a peptidoglycan cell wall and many have a polysaccharide capsule. The cell wall acts as an extra layer of protection, helps the cell maintain its shape, and prevents dehydration. The capsule enables the cell to attach to surfaces in its environment. 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.

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. 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.


Microbial Size: 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 4πr2, while the formula for its volume is 4/3πr3. 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. 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 led to the development of more sophisticated cells called eukaryotic cells.


Cell Surface Size: 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 mm3 and a surface area of 6 mm2, with a surface area-to-volume ratio of 6 to 1, whereas the cell on the right has a volume of 8 mm3 and a surface area of 24 mm2, with a surface area-to-volume ratio of 3 to 1.

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