Do Prokaryotic Cells Have a Nucleus?

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  • 0:03 Do Prokaryotic Cells…
  • 0:54 Further Understanding
  • 1:46 How They Function…
  • 3:27 Chromosomal Supercoiling
  • 4:30 Exceptions
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erika Steele

Erika has taught college Biology, Microbiology, and Environmental Science. She has a PhD in Science Education.

While relatively simple compared to eukaryotic cells, prokaryotic cells are fascinating units of life. This lesson tells you if a prokaryotic cell has a nucleus and explores how these organisms regulate their DNA.

Do Prokaryotic Cells Have a Nucleus?

There are two categories of cells: prokaryotic and eukaryotic. Prokaryotic cells, like those of bacteria and archaea, are structurally simple. If you look at them under a light microscope, they might seem pretty boring unless they're stained or moving. While eukaryotic cells (such as those of plants, animals, protozoans, and fungi) compartmentalize cellular functions to specialized regions, prokaryotic cells typically do not.

That means prokaryotic cells generally do not have organelles, which are the specialized membrane-bound compartments found in eukaryotic cells. The nucleus is an organelle at the core of the cell that contains the chromosomes, which are thread-like structures of DNA, or genetic material. And so, as you may have deduced, prokaryotic cells generally do not have a nucleus.

Further Understanding

In addition to not having a nucleus, prokaryotic cells do not have nuclear membranes or membrane-bound organelles, including mitochondria, endoplasmic reticula, or golgi apparati, among others. This lack or presence of a nucleus, nuclear membrane, and membrane-bound organelles helps to define these two types of cells: eukaryotic cells have them and prokaryotic cells don't.

Someone with a strong grasp of the Greek language might have already known that prokaryotic cells don't have nuclei from the name alone. In Greek, pro means before, and karyon means kernel (representing the nucleus), indicating that these cells are in a state before nuclei have developed. By contrast, the word eukaryote stems from eu (true) and karyon (kernel), indicating that these cells have true nuclei.

How They Function Without a Nucleus

This lesson would be quite dull if the answer to 'do prokaryotic cells have a nucleus?' was just no. But the way that prokaryotic cells continue to function as units of life without nuclei is very interesting! In fact, despite their relative simplicity, prokaryotic cells can perform many of the same processes as eukaryotic cells, though often in different ways.

Even without a nucleus or organelles, prokaryotic cells have many of the same adaptive capabilities as eukaryotic cells, like responding to the environment, motility, and taking in nutrients to make food. Now we'll discuss some of the features of prokaryotic cells that allow it to carry out DNA functions without a true nucleus.

Nucleoid Region

Though they do not have a nucleus, prokaryotic cells still store their genes on chromosomes and still regulate their DNA. These cells carry out many of these DNA functions in a special spot called the nucleoid region. The nucleoid region contains proteins and typically just one circular chromosome. Unlike the nucleus in eukaryotic cells, there is no distinct boundary (called a nuclear envelope) around the nucleoid region of a prokaryotic cell.

Ribosomes Built in Cytoplasm

Ribosomes, where the cell's proteins are built, are found in both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells, though they may be different in size and other features. The nucleus of a eukaryotic cell contains a specialized region called the nucleolus, and that's where ribosomes are assembled and then shipped out to the cytoplasm. In prokaryotes, ribosomal assembly occurs directly in the cytoplasm. Once assembled, the ribosomes of prokaryotic cells will be moved to the nucleoid region.

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