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Scientific classification
Template:Taxobox empire entry
Archea - Archebacteria
Bacteria - Eubacteria

Prokaryotes (from Old Greek pro- before + karyon nut, referring to the cell nucleus, + suffix -otos, pl. -otes; also spelled "procaryotes") are organisms without a cell nucleus (= karyon), or indeed any other membrane-bound organelles, in most cases unicellular (in rare cases, multicellular). This set of characteristics is distinct from eukaryotes (also spelled "eucaryotes"), organisms that have cell nuclei and may be variously unicellular or multicellular. The difference between the structure of prokaryotes and eukaryotes is so great that it is considered to be the most important distinction among groups of organisms. Most prokaryotes are bacteria, and the two terms are often treated as synonyms. However, Woese has proposed dividing prokaryotes into the Bacteria and Archaea (originally Eubacteria and Archaebacteria) because of the significant genetic differences between the two. This arrangement of Eukaryote, Bacteria, and Archaea is called the three-domain system. This replaces the two-empire system.


The cell structure of prokaryotes differs greatly from eukaryotes in many ways. The defining characteristic is, of course, the absence of a nucleus or nuclear envelope. Prokaryotes also were previously considered to lack cytoskeletons and do lack membrane-bound cell compartments such as vacuoles, endoplasmic reticula, mitochondria and chloroplasts. In eukaryotes, the latter two perform various metabolic processes and are believed to have been derived from endosymbiotic bacteria. In prokaryotes similar processes occur across the cell membrane; endosymbionts are extremely rare. Prokaryotes also have cell walls, while some eukaryotes, particularly animals, do not. Both eukaryotes and prokaryotes have structures called ribosomes, which produce protein. Prokaryotes are usually much smaller than eukaryotic cells.

Prokaryotes have a single circular (only exceptionally linear, as in Borrelia burgdorferi or the Streptomyces) chromosome, contained within a region called nucleoid, rather than in a membrane-bound nucleus, but may also have various small circular pieces of DNA called plasmids spread throughout the cell. Reproduction is most often asexual, through binary fission, where the chromosome is duplicated and attaches to the cell membrane, and then the cell divides in two. However, they show a variety of parasexual processes where DNA is transferred between cells, such as transformation and transduction.

While prokaryotes are nearly always unicellular, some are capable of forming groups of cells called colonies. Unlike many eukaryotic multicellular organisms, each member of the colony is undifferentiated and capable of free-living. Individuals that make up such bacterial colonies most often still act independent of one another. Colonies are formed by organisms that remain attached following cell division, sometimes through the help of a secreted slime layer.

The prokaryotes are different to the eukaryote other than in the membrane bound organelles in that the DNA in the eukaryote is found in the nucleus while in the prokaryote there is only a single loop of DNA. Prokaryotic DNA also lacks the proteins found in eukaryotic DNA.Prokaryotes have a larger surface area to volume ratio. This gives the Prokaryotes a higher metabolic rate, a higher growth rate and thus a smaller generation time as compared to the Eukaryotes.

Recent research [1] by UCLA indicates that at least some prokaryotes contain protein-enclosed microcompartments which can be seen as primitive organelles.


Prokaryotes are found in nearly all environments on earth. Archaea in particular seem to thrive in harsh conditions, such as high temperatures or salinity. Organisms such as these are referred to as extremophiles. Many prokaryotes live in or on the bodies of other organisms, including humans. Sometimes this leads to a life-threatening bacterial infection, but in many cases the organisms are harmless or even beneficial to the host.

Evolution of prokaryotesEdit

Main article: Evolution of prokaryotes

It is generally accepted that the first living cells were some form of prokaryote. Fossilized prokaryotes 3.5 billion years old have been discovered, and prokaryotes are perhaps the most successful and abundant organism even today. In contrast the eukaryote only appeared approximately 1.5 billion years ago. While earth is the only known place where prokaryotes exist, some have suggested structures within a Martian meteorite should be interpreted as fossil prokaryotes, but this is extremely doubtful.

Prokaryotes diversified greatly throughout their long existence. The metabolism of prokaryotes is far more varied than that of eukaryotes, leading to many highly distinct types of prokaryotes. For example, in addition to using photosynthesis or an organic form of carbon for energy like eukaryotes do, prokaryotes may obtain energy from inorganic chemicals such as hydrogen sulfide.

This has enabled the bacteria to thrive and reproduce. Today, bacteria can be found in the cold of Antarctica and in the hot Yellowstone springs.

See alsoEdit

This article contains material from the Science Primer published by the NCBI, which, as a US government publication, is in the public domain atПрокариоти cs:Prokaryota da:Prokaryot de:Prokaryoten es:Célula procariota eo:Prokarioto eu:Prokarioto fr:Procaryote ko:원핵생물 id:Prokaryotahe:פרוקריוטיים lv:Prokariots lt:Prokariotinė ląstelė lb:Prokaryoten hu:Prokarióta mk:Прокариота nl:Prokaryootno:Prokaryoter oc:Procariòtapt:Procarionte ru:Прокариоты sh:Prokariote sk:Prokaryoty sl:Prokariont sr:Прокариоте fi:Esitumaiset sv:Prokaryoter vi:Sinh vật nhân sơ zh:原核生物

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