Introduction to the Structure of Prokaryotes

Describe the structure of prokaryotic cells

There are many differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. The name “prokaryote” suggests that prokaryotes are defined by exclusion—they are not eukaryotes, or organisms whose cells contain a nucleus and other internal membrane-bound organelles. However, all cells have four common structures: the plasma membrane, which functions as a barrier for the cell and separates the cell from its environment; the cytoplasm, a complex solution of organic molecules and salts inside the cell; a double-stranded DNA genome, the informational archive of the cell; and ribosomes, where protein synthesis takes place. Prokaryotes come in various shapes, but many fall into three categories: cocci (spherical), bacilli (rod-shaped), and spirilli (spiral-shaped) (Figure 1).

Part a: The micrograph shows ball-shaped cocci about 0.9 microns long. Part b: The micrograph shows hotdog-shaped bacilli about 2 microns long. Part c: The micrograph shows corkscrew-shaped spirilli that are quite long and 2 microns in diameter.

Figure 1. Prokaryotes fall into three basic categories based on their shape, visualized here using scanning electron microscopy: (a) cocci, or spherical (a pair is shown); (b) bacilli, or rod-shaped; and (c) spirilli, or spiral-shaped. (credit a: modification of work by Janice Haney Carr, Dr. Richard Facklam, CDC; credit c: modification of work by Dr. David Cox; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

What You’ll Learn to Do

  • Describe the basic structure of a typical prokaryote
  • Describe important differences in structure between Archaea and Bacteria

Learning Activities

The learning activities for this section include the following:

  • The Prokaryotic Cell
  • Archaea vs. Bacteria
  • Self Check: Structure of Prokaryotes


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