Reading: Nucleus

The nucleus is bordered by the endoplasmic reticulum. The edge of the nucleus itself is the nuclear envelope. Small openings in the nuclear envelope are nuclear pores. Inside the cell is a gel-like substance called nucleoplasm. Some long, thin, squiggly material called chromatin is floating in the nucleoplasm. In the center of the nucleus is a concentrated mass called the nucleolus.

Figure 1. The nucleus stores chromatin (DNA plus proteins) in a gel-like substance called the nucleoplasm. The nucleolus is a condensed region of chromatin where ribosome synthesis occurs. The boundary of the nucleus is called the nuclear envelope. It consists of two phospholipid bilayers: an outer membrane and an inner membrane. The nuclear membrane is continuous with the endoplasmic reticulum. Nuclear pores allow substances to enter and exit the nucleus.

Typically, the nucleus is the most prominent organelle in a cell. The nucleus (plural = nuclei) houses the cell’s DNA and directs the synthesis of ribosomes and proteins. Let’s look at it in more detail (Figure 1).

The Nuclear Envelope

The nuclear envelope is a double-membrane structure that constitutes the outermost portion of the nucleus (Figure 1). Both the inner and outer membranes of the nuclear envelope are phospholipid bilayers.

The nuclear envelope is punctuated with pores that control the passage of ions, molecules, and RNA between the nucleoplasm and cytoplasm. The nucleoplasm is the semi-solid fluid inside the nucleus, where we find the chromatin and the nucleolus.

Chromatin and Chromosomes

To understand chromatin, it is helpful to first consider chromosomes. Chromosomes are structures within the nucleus that are made up of DNA, the hereditary material. In prokaryotes, DNA is organized into a single circular chromosome. In eukaryotes, chromosomes are linear structures. Every eukaryotic species has a specific number of chromosomes in the nuclei of its body’s cells. For example, in humans, the chromosome number is 46, while in fruit flies, it is eight. Chromosomes are only visible and distinguishable from one another when the cell is getting ready to divide. When the cell is in the growth and maintenance phases of its life cycle, proteins are attached to chromosomes, and they resemble an unwound, jumbled bunch of threads. These unwound protein-chromosome complexes are called chromatin (Figure 2); chromatin describes the material that makes up the chromosomes both when condensed and decondensed.

Part a: In this illustration, DNA tightly coiled into two thick cylinders is shown in the upper right. A close-up shows how the DNA is coiled around proteins called histones. Part b: This image shows paired chromosomes.

Figure 2. (a) This image shows various levels of the organization of chromatin (DNA and protein). (b) This image shows paired chromosomes. (credit b: modification of work by NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

The Nucleolus

We already know that the nucleus directs the synthesis of ribosomes, but how does it do this? Some chromosomes have sections of DNA that encode ribosomal RNA. A darkly staining area within the nucleus called the nucleolus (plural = nucleoli) aggregates the ribosomal RNA with associated proteins to assemble the ribosomal subunits that are then transported out through the pores in the nuclear envelope to the cytoplasm.