Cell Division in Prokaryotes

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

In this lesson, we'll explore what type of organisms prokaryotes are before taking a look at the main way prokaryotic cells divide as well as some more rare types of cell division.

What Are Prokaryotes?

When you think of the living world around you, plants, animals, and other humans probably come to mind first. But if you look a little closer or, more precisely, look beneath the surface, you'll find a flourishing world full of microscopic organisms. This microscopic world is enormous and diverse, but we're going to focus on one big group of bacteria called prokaryotes. They are tiny but many--more than 10,000 unique species of bacteria exist.

Prokaryotes are microscopic, single-celled organisms without a special compartment for DNA called a nucleus, which other cells have. The way these creatures continue their existence is through the process of cell division, or one cell dividing into additional cells. This will be the topic of our lesson today, and we'll start by looking at the main types of cell division.

Binary Fission

Most prokaryotes divide using a process called binary fission. The prefix bi literally means two, so in binary fission, one cell makes two cells.

The first step in binary fission is copying of the cell's DNA. This process is relatively easy, since the DNA just floats around in the cell's main compartment, or cytoplasm. There are also small pieces of DNA, called plasmids, that float around in the cytoplasm. These usually have instructions to give the bacteria a special skill, like the ability to grow with drugs that would normally kill it, like antibiotics. These also need to be duplicated, and once that happens, the copies and the originals move to opposite ends of the cell.

The cell then grows and elongates, so there is enough of it to split into two identical cells. Next, the septal ring (Z-ring) assembles around the middle of the cell. It pinches the cells in half, creating two new cells. You can see how the process works in the graphic below.

binary fission

If you've ever made bread, you can use a thin piece of twine to cut the bread in half evenly by placing it underneath the bread and pulling up. The same thing happens with the bacteria cell using the Z-ring in place of the twine.

Rare Types of Cell Division in Prokaryotes

Although almost all bacteria divide using binary fission, a few use a different approach. Here, we'll cover three additional ways bacteria divide: multiple cell divisions, budding, and intracellular offspring.

Multiple Cell Divisions

Stanieria is a cyanobacteria, meaning it can make its own food, like plants do. This bacteria starts with a very basic cell called a baeocyte. This cell replicates DNA over and over again, filling the cell with it. When it has enough copies of the DNA, the cytoplasm rapidly divides, giving each piece of DNA a home filled with cytoplasm. Then, the new cells burst out of the baeocyte forming up to hundreds of new baeocytes.

A baeocyte undergoes multiple cell divisions to divide into new cells
multiple cell divisions

Although Stanieria is a bacteria, we can compare it to some species of spiders, which let their eggs develop inside of them until they literally eat their way out of the mother. The baby spiders dissolve the mother's abdominal cavity to escape, like how the new baeocytes break free of the original cell.


Although less exciting than our spider analogy, budding is another way that prokaryotes divide. This type of division is common in other types of cells but is less understood in the prokaryotic world. During budding in some cyanobacteria, the parent cell grows a tiny cell off of it. Eventually that tiny cell grows so large that it splits, or buds, from the parent cell.

Cell budding

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