Prokaryotes and Eukaryotes

What you’ll learn to do: Compare prokaryotes and eukaryotes

In Introduction to Biology, we discussed the diversity of life on earth and mentioned how there are over 1.9 million species of living organisms on earth today. All these species of organisms have one of two different types of cells. In this section, we will compare the two cell types: prokaryotic and eukaryotic.

Within these two broad categories of cells, there are many diverse life forms. For example, both animal and plant cells are classified as eukaryotic cells, whereas all the many bacterial cells are classified as prokaryotic.

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify features common to all cells
  • Compare and contrast prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells
  • List the unifying characteristics of eukaryotes
  • Discuss the origins of eukaryotic life

Comparing Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells

Cells fall into one of two broad categories: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. The predominantly single-celled organisms of the domains Bacteria and Archaea are classified as prokaryotes (pro– = before; –karyon– = nucleus). Animal cells, plant cells, fungi, and protists are eukaryotes (eu– = true).

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 region within the cell in which other cellular components are found; 3) DNA, the genetic material of the cell; and 4) ribosomes, particles that synthesize proteins. However, prokaryotes differ from eukaryotic cells in several ways.

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 in 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 extend from the capsule in all directions.

Figure 1. This figure shows the generalized structure of a prokaryotic cell.

A prokaryotic cell is a simple, 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 the central part of the cell: a darkened region called the nucleoid (Figure 1).

Unlike Archaea and eukaryotes, bacteria have a cell wall made of peptidoglycan, comprised of sugars and amino acids, and many have a polysaccharide capsule (Figure 1). 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 protein appendages used by bacteria to attach to other cells.

Eukaryotic Cells

In nature, the relationship between form and function is apparent at all levels, including the level of the cell, and this will become clear as we explore eukaryotic cells. The principle “form follows function” is found in many contexts. For example, birds and fish have streamlined bodies that allow them to move quickly through the medium in which they live, be it air or water. It means that, in general, one can deduce the function of a structure by looking at its form, because the two are matched.

A eukaryotic cell is a cell that has a membrane-bound nucleus and other membrane-bound compartments or sacs, called organelles, which have specialized functions. The word eukaryotic means “true kernel” or “true nucleus,” alluding to the presence of the membrane-bound nucleus in these cells. The word “organelle” means “little organ,” and, as already mentioned, organelles have specialized cellular functions, just as the organs of your body have specialized functions.

Cell Size

At 0.1–5.0 µm in diameter, prokaryotic cells are significantly smaller than eukaryotic cells, which have diameters ranging from 10–100 µm (Figure 2). The small size of prokaryotes allows ions and organic molecules that enter them to quickly spread to other parts of the cell. Similarly, any wastes produced within a prokaryotic cell can quickly move out. However, larger eukaryotic cells have evolved different structural adaptations to enhance cellular transport. Indeed, the large size of these cells would not be possible without these adaptations. In general, cell size is limited because volume increases much more quickly than does cell surface area. As a cell becomes larger, it becomes more and more difficult for the cell to acquire sufficient materials to support the processes inside the cell, because the relative size of the surface area through which materials must be transported declines.

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 µm. Plant and animal cells are both between 10 and 100 µm. A human egg is between 100 µm 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.

Figure 2. This figure shows the relative sizes of different kinds of cells and cellular components. An adult human is shown for comparison.

In Summary: Comparing Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells

Prokaryotes are predominantly single-celled organisms of the domains Bacteria and Archaea. All prokaryotes have plasma membranes, cytoplasm, ribosomes, a cell wall, DNA, and lack membrane-bound organelles. Many also have polysaccharide capsules. Prokaryotic cells range in diameter from 0.1–5.0 µm.

Like a prokaryotic cell, a eukaryotic cell has a plasma membrane, cytoplasm, and ribosomes, but a eukaryotic cell is typically larger than a prokaryotic cell, has a true nucleus (meaning its DNA is surrounded by a membrane), and has other membrane-bound organelles that allow for compartmentalization of functions. Eukaryotic cells tend to be 10 to 100 times the size of prokaryotic cells.

Eukaryotic Origins

Living things fall into three large groups: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. The first two have prokaryotic cells, and the third contains all eukaryotes. A relatively sparse fossil record is available to help discern what the first members of each of these lineages looked like, so it is possible that all the events that led to the last common ancestor of extant eukaryotes will remain unknown. However, comparative biology of extant organisms and the limited fossil record provide some insight into the history of Eukarya.

The earliest fossils found appear to be Bacteria, most likely cyanobacteria. They are about 3.5 billion years old and are recognizable because of their relatively complex structure and, for prokaryotes, relatively large cells. Most other prokaryotes have small cells, 1 or 2 µm in size, and would be difficult to pick out as fossils. Most living eukaryotes have cells measuring 10 µm or greater. Structures this size, which might be fossils, appear in the geological record about 2.1 billion years ago.

Characteristics of Eukaryotes

Data from these fossils have led comparative biologists to the conclusion that living eukaryotes are all descendants of a single common ancestor. Mapping the characteristics found in all major groups of eukaryotes reveals that the following characteristics must have been present in the last common ancestor, because these characteristics are present in at least some of the members of each major lineage.

  1. Cells with nuclei surrounded by a nuclear envelope with nuclear pores. This is the single characteristic that is both necessary and sufficient to define an organism as a eukaryote. All extant eukaryotes have cells with nuclei.
  2. Mitochondria. Some extant eukaryotes have very reduced remnants of mitochondria in their cells, whereas other members of their lineages have “typical” mitochondria.
  3. A cytoskeleton containing the structural and motility components called actin microfilaments and microtubules. All extant eukaryotes have these cytoskeletal elements.
  4. Flagella and cilia, organelles associated with cell motility. Some extant eukaryotes lack flagella and/or cilia, but they are descended from ancestors that possessed them.
  5. Chromosomes, each consisting of a linear DNA molecule coiled around basic (alkaline) proteins called histones. The few eukaryotes with chromosomes lacking histones clearly evolved from ancestors that had them.
  6. Mitosis, a process of nuclear division wherein replicated chromosomes are divided and separated using elements of the cytoskeleton. Mitosis is universally present in eukaryotes.
  7. Sex, a process of genetic recombination unique to eukaryotes in which diploid nuclei at one stage of the life cycle undergo meiosis to yield haploid nuclei and subsequent karyogamy, a stage where two haploid nuclei fuse together to create a diploid zygote nucleus.
  8. Some have cell walls. It might be reasonable to conclude that the last common ancestor could make cell walls during some stage of its life cycle. However, not enough is known about eukaryotes’ cell walls and their development to know how much homology exists among them. Homology is the existence of shared ancestry between a pair of structures in different organisms (a similarity that stems from evolution). If the last common ancestor could make cell walls, it is clear that this ability must have been lost in many groups (most obviously animal cells).

Endosymbiosis and the Evolution of Eukaryotes

In order to understand eukaryotic organisms fully, it is necessary to understand that all living eukaryotes are descendants of a chimeric organism that was a composite of a host cell and the cell(s) of an alpha-proteobacterium that “took up residence” inside it. This major theme in the origin of eukaryotes is known as endosymbiosis, one cell engulfing another such that the engulfed cell survives and both cells benefit. Over many generations, a symbiotic relationship can result in two organisms that depend on each other so completely that neither could survive on its own. Endosymbiotic events likely contributed to the origin of the last common ancestor of today’s eukaryotes and to later diversification in certain lineages of eukaryotes.

Endosymbiotic Theory

As cell biology developed in the twentieth century, it became clear that mitochondria were the organelles responsible for producing ATP using aerobic respiration. In the 1960s, American biologist Lynn Margulis developed endosymbiotic theory, which states that eukaryotes may have been a product of one cell engulfing another, one living within another, and evolving over time until the separate cells were no longer recognizable as such. In 1967, Margulis introduced new work on the theory and substantiated her findings through microbiological evidence. Although Margulis’ work initially was met with resistance, this once-revolutionary hypothesis is now widely (but not completely) accepted, with work progressing on uncovering the steps involved in this evolutionary process and the key players involved. Much still remains to be discovered about the origins of the cells that now make up the cells in all living eukaryotes.

Broadly, it has become clear that many of our nuclear genes and the molecular machinery responsible for replication and expression appear closely related to those in Archaea. On the other hand, the metabolic organelles and genes responsible for many energy-harvesting processes had their origins in bacteria. Much remains to be clarified about how this relationship occurred; this continues to be an exciting field of discovery in biology. For instance, it is not known whether the endosymbiotic event that led to mitochondria occurred before or after the host cell had a nucleus. Such organisms would be among the extinct precursors of the last common ancestor of eukaryotes.

Mitochondria

One of the major features distinguishing prokaryotes from eukaryotes is the presence of mitochondria. Eukaryotic cells may contain anywhere from one to several thousand mitochondria, depending on the cell’s level of energy consumption. Each mitochondrion measures 1 to 10 or greater micrometers in length and exists in the cell as an organelle that can be ovoid to worm-shaped to intricately branched (Figure 3).

This micrograph shows two round, membrane-bound organelles inside a cell. The organelles are about 400 microns across and have membranes running through the middle of them.

Figure 3. In this transmission electron micrograph of mitochondria in a mammalian lung cell, the cristae, infoldings of the mitochondrial inner membrane, can be seen in cross-section. (credit: Louise Howard)

Mitochondria arise from the division of existing mitochondria; they may fuse together; and they may be moved around inside the cell by interactions with the cytoskeleton. However, mitochondria cannot survive outside the cell. As the atmosphere was oxygenated by photosynthesis, and as successful aerobic prokaryotes evolved, evidence suggests that an ancestral cell with some membrane compartmentalization engulfed a free-living aerobic prokaryote, specifically an alpha-proteobacterium, thereby giving the host cell the ability to use oxygen to release energy stored in nutrients.

Mitochondria divide independently by a process that resembles binary fission in prokaryotes. Specifically, mitochondria are not formed from scratch (de novo) by the eukaryotic cell; they reproduce within it and are distributed with the cytoplasm when a cell divides or two cells fuse. Therefore, although these organelles are highly integrated into the eukaryotic cell, they still reproduce as if they are independent organisms within the cell. However, their reproduction is synchronized with the activity and division of the cell. Mitochondria have their own (usually) circular DNA chromosome that is stabilized by attachments to the inner membrane and carries genes similar to genes expressed by alpha-proteobacteria. Mitochondria also have special ribosomes and transfer RNAs that resemble these components in prokaryotes. These features all support that mitochondria were once free-living prokaryotes.

Mitochondria that carry out aerobic respiration have their own genomes, with genes similar to those in alpha-proteobacteria. However, many of the genes for respiratory proteins are located in the nucleus. When these genes are compared to those of other organisms, they appear to be of alpha-proteobacterial origin. Additionally, in some eukaryotic groups, such genes are found in the mitochondria, whereas in other groups, they are found in the nucleus. This has been interpreted as evidence that genes have been transferred from the endosymbiont chromosome to the host genome. This loss of genes by the endosymbiont is probably one explanation why mitochondria cannot live without a host.

Plastids

Some groups of eukaryotes are photosynthetic. Their cells contain, in addition to the standard eukaryotic organelles, another kind of organelle called a plastid. When such cells are carrying out photosynthesis, their plastids are rich in the pigment chlorophyll a and a range of other pigments, called accessory pigments, which are involved in harvesting energy from light. Photosynthetic plastids are called chloroplasts (Figure 4).

The illustration A shows a green, oval chloroplast with an outer membrane and an inner membrane. Thylakoids are disk-shaped and stack together like poker chips. Image B is a micrograph showing rectangular shapes that have small green spheres within.

Figure 4. (a) This chloroplast cross-section illustrates its elaborate inner membrane organization. Stacks of thylakoid membranes compartmentalize photosynthetic enzymes and provide scaffolding for chloroplast DNA. (b) In this micrograph of Elodea sp., the chloroplasts can be seen as small green spheres. (credit b: modification of work by Brandon Zierer; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Like mitochondria, plastids appear to have an endosymbiotic origin. This hypothesis was also championed by Lynn Margulis. Plastids are derived from cyanobacteria that lived inside the cells of an ancestral, aerobic, heterotrophic eukaryote. This is called primary endosymbiosis, and plastids of primary origin are surrounded by two membranes. The best evidence is that this has happened twice in the history of eukaryotes. In one case, the common ancestor of the major lineage/supergroup Archaeplastida took on a cyanobacterial endosymbiont; in the other, the ancestor of the small amoeboid rhizarian taxon, Paulinella, took on a different cyanobacterial endosymbiont. Almost all photosynthetic eukaryotes are descended from the first event, and only a couple of species are derived from the other.

Cyanobacteria are a group of bacteria with all the conventional structures of the group. However, unlike most prokaryotes, they have extensive, internal membrane-bound sacs called thylakoids. Chlorophyll is a component of these membranes, as are many of the proteins of the light reactions of photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria also have the peptidoglycan wall and lipopolysaccharide layer associated with bacteria.

Chloroplasts of primary origin have thylakoids, a circular DNA chromosome, and ribosomes similar to those of cyanobacteria. Each chloroplast is surrounded by two membranes. In the group of Archaeplastida called the glaucophytes and in Paulinella, a thin peptidoglycan layer is present between the outer and inner plastid membranes. All other plastids lack this relictual cyanobacterial wall. The outer membrane surrounding the plastid is thought to be derived from the vacuole in the host, and the inner membrane is thought to be derived from the plasma membrane of the symbiont.

There is also, as with the case of mitochondria, strong evidence that many of the genes of the endosymbiont were transferred to the nucleus. Plastids, like mitochondria, cannot live independently outside the host. In addition, like mitochondria, plastids are derived from the division of other plastids and never built from scratch. Researchers have suggested that the endosymbiotic event that led to Archaeplastida occurred 1 to 1.5 billion years ago, at least 5 hundred million years after the fossil record suggests that eukaryotes were present.

Practice Question

The illustration shows steps that, according to the endosymbiotic theory, gave rise to eukaryotic organisms. In step 1, infoldings in the plasma membrane of an ancestral prokaryote gave rise to endomembrane components, including a nucleus and endoplasmic reticulum. In step 2, the first endosymbiotic event occurred: The ancestral eukaryote consumed aerobic bacteria that evolved into mitochondria. In a second endosymbiotic event, the early eukaryote consumed photosynthetic bacteria that evolved into chloroplasts.

Figure 5. The first eukaryote may have originated from an ancestral prokaryote that had undergone membrane proliferation, compartmentalization of cellular function (into a nucleus, lysosomes, and an endoplasmic reticulum), and the establishment of endosymbiotic relationships with an aerobic prokaryote, and, in some cases, a photosynthetic prokaryote, to form mitochondria and chloroplasts, respectively.

What evidence is there that mitochondria were incorporated into the ancestral eukaryotic cell before chloroplasts?

Secondary Endosymbiosis in Chlorarachniophytes

Endosymbiosis involves one cell engulfing another to produce, over time, a coevolved relationship in which neither cell could survive alone. The chloroplasts of red and green algae, for instance, are derived from the engulfment of a photosynthetic cyanobacterium by an early prokaryote.

This leads to the question of the possibility of a cell containing an endosymbiont to itself become engulfed, resulting in a secondary endosymbiosis. Molecular and morphological evidence suggest that the chlorarachniophyte protists are derived from a secondary endosymbiotic event. Chlorarachniophytes are rare algae indigenous to tropical seas and sand that can be classified into the rhizarian supergroup. Chlorarachniophytes extend thin cytoplasmic strands, interconnecting themselves with other chlorarachniophytes, in a cytoplasmic network. These protists are thought to have originated when a eukaryote engulfed a green alga, the latter of which had already established an endosymbiotic relationship with a photosynthetic cyanobacterium (Figure 6).

According to the secondary endosymbiosis theory, plastids in modern chlorarachniophytes arose via two endosymbiotic events. In the first event, a cyanobacterium was engulfed by a heterotrophic eukaryote. Cyanobacteria have two membranes and the endosymbiosis event gave rise to a third membrane. One of these membranes was lost. Then, in a second endosymbiotic event, the cell was engulfed by another cell. The first cell became a plastid, an organelle with a vestigial nucleus and an organelle membrane inside it; thus, the plastid has the appearance of a cell within a cell.

Figure 6. The hypothesized process of endosymbiotic events leading to the evolution of chlorarachniophytes is shown. In a primary endosymbiotic event, a heterotrophic eukaryote consumed a cyanobacterium. In a secondary endosymbiotic event, the cell resulting from primary endosymbiosis was consumed by a second cell. The resulting organelle became a plastid in modern chlorarachniophytes.

Several lines of evidence support that chlorarachniophytes evolved from secondary endosymbiosis. The chloroplasts contained within the green algal endosymbionts still are capable of photosynthesis, making chlorarachniophytes photosynthetic. The green algal endosymbiont also exhibits a stunted vestigial nucleus. In fact, it appears that chlorarachniophytes are the products of an evolutionarily recent secondary endosymbiotic event.

The plastids of chlorarachniophytes are surrounded by four membranes: The first two correspond to the inner and outer membranes of the photosynthetic cyanobacterium, the third corresponds to the green alga, and the fourth corresponds to the vacuole that surrounded the green alga when it was engulfed by the chlorarachniophyte ancestor. In other lineages that involved secondary endosymbiosis, only three membranes can be identified around plastids. This is currently rectified as a sequential loss of a membrane during the course of evolution.

The process of secondary endosymbiosis is not unique to chlorarachniophytes. In fact, secondary endosymbiosis of green algae also led to euglenid protists, whereas secondary endosymbiosis of red algae led to the evolution of dinoflagellates, apicomplexans, and stramenopiles.

In Summary: Eukaryotic Origins

The oldest fossil evidence of eukaryotes is about 2 billion years old. Fossils older than this all appear to be prokaryotes. It is probable that today’s eukaryotes are descended from an ancestor that had a prokaryotic organization. The last common ancestor of today’s Eukarya had several characteristics, including cells with nuclei that divided mitotically and contained linear chromosomes where the DNA was associated with histones, a cytoskeleton and endomembrane system, and the ability to make cilia/flagella during at least part of its life cycle. It was aerobic because it had mitochondria that were the result of an aerobic alpha-proteobacterium that lived inside a host cell. Whether this host had a nucleus at the time of the initial symbiosis remains unknown. The last common ancestor may have had a cell wall for at least part of its life cycle, but more data are needed to confirm this hypothesis. Today’s eukaryotes are very diverse in their shapes, organization, life cycles, and number of cells per individual.

Practice Questions

Refer back to Figure 3. What evidence is there that mitochondria were incorporated into the ancestral eukaryotic cell before chloroplasts?

Describe the hypothesized steps in the origin of eukaryotic cells.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

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