Prokaryotic cells- characteristics, structure, division, examples

Definition of prokaryotic cells

Prokaryotic cells are single-celled entities that are primitive in structure and function as they lack a membrane-bound nucleus and other organelles. The term “prokaryote” is derived from two Greek words, ‘pro’ meaning ‘before’ and ‘karyon’ meaning ‘nucleus’. Prokaryotes are considered to be the first living organisms of the earth as they are the simplest form of life.

Prokaryotic cells- characteristics, structure, division, examples

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Characteristics of prokaryotic cells

The general characteristics of prokaryotic cells are listed below:

  • In general, prokaryotic cells range in size from 0.1 to 5.0 µm and are considerably smaller than eukaryotic cells.
  • The shape of prokaryotic cells ranges from cocci, bacilli, spirilla, and vibrio. However, prokaryotic cells with modifications of these shapes are also found in nature.
  • The cellular organization of prokaryotic cells is primitive as they lack a membrane-bound nucleus and other membrane-bound cell organelles.
  • The genetic material of prokaryotic cells in a single chromosome is made up of a single strand of DNA.
  • A critical protein, histone protein, that is found bound in the chromosomes of eukaryotes is absent in prokaryotic cells.
  • Prokaryotic cells also lack the nucleolus and the mitotic apparatus.
  • The cell wall of prokaryotic cells is non-cellulosic and is made up of carbohydrates and lipids.
  • Prokaryotic cells are asexual and thus, reproduce via asexual means without the formation of gametes.

Structure (Components/ Parts) of a prokaryotic cell

The structure of a prokaryotic cell is not as complex as eukaryotic cells as they have primitive cell organelles. Generally, most prokaryotic cells have the following components/ parts:

  1. Capsule

  • This is an additional outer covering in some prokaryotic cells that serve to protect the cell against foreign invaders.
  • The capsule is made up of polysaccharides, that allows the cells to cling to various surfaces and preserves the moisture in the cell.
  1. Cell wall

  • The cell wall is a tough coring of prokaryotic cells present inside the capsule.
  • The cell wall of most prokaryotes is made up of polymer of carbohydrates and lipids termed, peptidoglycan.
  • In Archaeal cells, however, the cell wall doesn’t contain peptidoglycan but some other structure called pseudopeptidoglycan. It Is made up of proteins and other polymers.
  • The cell wall provides shape to the cell while protecting the cell organelles present in the cytoplasm of the cell.
  1. Cell membrane/ Plasma membrane/ Cytoplasmic membrane

  • Underneath the cell wall is a cell membrane that is made up of phospholipid.
  • The phospholipid forms a bilayer consisting of lipid composed of glycerol attached to a hydrophobic phosphate head and two hydrophilic fatty acid tails.
  • In archaea, the phospholipid tails are usually connected, forming a monolayer instead of the bilayer structure.
  • The plasma membrane in prokaryotic cells provides protection to the cell while allowing the transport of essential molecules in and out of the cell.
  1. Cytoplasm

  • The cytoplasm is the entire space of cells present inside of the cell membrane.
  • It contains a gel-like cytosol and water-based solution that contains minerals and other ions essential for the cell.
  • Besides, the cytoplasm also contains other cellular structures like the chromosomes and ribosomes.
  1. Ribosomes

  • All prokaryotic cells have 70S ribosomes. The 70S ribosomes are made up of two subunits, 30S, and 50S.
  • Here, the 50S subunit contains 23S, and 5S rRNA and the 30S subunit contains 16S rRNA.
  • The ribosome is the most commonly observed internal structure in prokaryotic cells.
  • The size and number of ribosomes differ in different prokaryotic cells.
  • The ribosome is responsible for the formation of polypeptides and in turn, proteins.
  1. Nucleoid region

  • The nucleoid region of cytoplasm in prokaryotic cells contains a single circular chromosome and small rings of extrachromosomal DNA called plasmids.
  • The single circular chromosome is present as a single copy of genetic material in contrast to the two copies of DNA in eukaryotes.
  • The prokaryotic genomes are also smaller in size than the eukaryotic genomes.
  • The plasmids, in turn, are copied independently copied outside of the chromosomes. These plasmids might carry some non-essential genes.
  1. Appendages

  • Many prokaryotic cells have cell appendages that protrude out from the cell surface as flagella, pili, and fimbriae.
  • Flagella are the most common appendages in many prokaryotic cells.
  • These are tail-like structures that assist the cell in moving around.
  • Fimbriae are thin filamentous structures that are used to stick the cells to various surfaces.
  • Pilli, in turn, are longer filaments that have different roles in different cells. One example of this is the sex pilli that holds two cells together as they transfer the DNA molecules by the process of conjugation.

Division of prokaryotic cells (Reproduction)

As mentioned earlier, prokaryotic cells reproduce asexually without the formation of gametes. Some asexual modes of reproduction in prokaryotes are:

Binary fission

  • Binary fission is a type of asexual reproduction where a single living cell or an organelle grows twice its size and then splits into two identical daughter cells, where each of these daughter cells has the potential to grow into the size of the original cell or organelle.
  • Binary fission is the mode of reproduction in many prokaryotes including, archaea, cyanobacteria, and eubacteria.
  • During this process, the genetic material of the parent cell is equally divided into two daughter cells. As a result, no genetic variation is observed in the newly formed prokaryotic cells.

Steps of binary fission

  1. The DNA of the cell divides to form two identical DNA molecules, both of which are moved towards the cell membrane.
  2. The cell then doubles its size, and the cell membrane slowly starts to divide with each having a copy of the DNA.
  3. Once the division of the cell membrane is completed, the cell wall is formed between the two strands of DNA dividing the parent cell into two identical daughter cells.


  • Another asexual mode of reproduction in prokaryotic cells is via recombination.
  • In this case, the genetic material of one cell is incorporated into the cell of another prokaryote via transduction, transformation, and conjugation.
  • In conjugation, two cells are connected via sex pilli where genes are transferred through the pilli.
  • In transformation, the prokaryotic cell takes up the genetic material from the environment and incorporates it into the bacterial chromosome.
  • In transduction, the exchange of genes occurs via viral infection. The bacteriophage first infects one bacterium and takes up the targeted gene and transfers it to another cell.

Prokaryotic cell examples

Bacterial cells

  • Bacteria are the single-celled organisms that are found in all ecosystems throughout the world.
  • The cell wall of the bacterial cell is formed of peptidoglycan that makes it tough and thick.
  • Capsules are unique to some bacteria and thus might not be present in other prokaryotic cells.
  • The genetic material of bacteria is present in the form of circular coils of chromosomes.
  • Examples of bacterial cells are E. coli, Streptomyces spp, Pseudomonas spp, etc.

Archaeal cell (Archaea)

  • Archaeal cells are similar to bacterial cells as they too are primitive unicellular organisms.
  • Archaeal cells are mostly found in extreme environments like hot springs, oceans, and marshlands.
  • The capsule is not present in archaeal cells, and the cell wall is made up of pseudopeptidoglycan, composed of proteins.
  • Similarly, the cell membrane of archaeal cells has a monolayer of phospholipid that protects the cell against harsh environments.
  • Examples of archaeal cells are Halobacterium spp, Thermoplasma spp, Sulfolobus spp, etc.

FAQs / Revision Question Answers

What are three examples of prokaryotic cells?
Any three examples of prokaryotic cells are blue-green algae, E. coli, and mycoplasma.

Do prokaryotic cells have ribosomes?
Yes, prokaryotic cells have ribosomes. The ribosome is of 70S type.

Do prokaryotic cells have a nucleus?
No, prokaryotic cells do not have a membrane-bound nucleus, but they do have a nucleoid region in the cytoplasm that contains the genetic material.

Do prokaryotic cells have mitochondria?
No, prokaryotic cells do not have mitochondria.

Is DNA found in prokaryotic cells?
Yes, DNA is found as genetic material and extrachromosomal plastids in prokaryotic cells.

How do prokaryotic cells divide?
Prokaryotic cells divide through asexual methods like binary fission and conjugation.

Prokaryotic Cells Video (Mr Exham Biology)




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