2.3 Unique Characteristics of Prokaryotic Cells

Learning Objectives
  • Explain the distinguishing characteristics of prokaryotic cells
  • Describe common cell morphologies typical of prokaryotic cells
  • Describe internal and external structures of prokaryotic cells in terms of their physical structure, chemical structure, and function
  • Compare the distinguishing characteristics of bacterial and archaeal cells

Cell theory states that the cell is the fundamental unit of life. However, cells vary significantly in size, shape, structure, and function. At the simplest level of construction, all cells possess a few fundamental components. These include cytoplasm (a gel-like substance composed of water and dissolved chemicals needed for growth), which is contained within a plasma membrane (also called a cell membrane or cytoplasmic membrane); one or more chromosomes, which contain the genetic blueprints of the cell; and ribosomes, organelles used for the production of proteins.

Beyond these basic components, cells can vary greatly between organisms, and even within the same multicellular organism. The two largest categories of cells—prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells—are defined by major differences in several cell structures. Prokaryotic cells lack a nucleus surrounded by a complex nuclear membrane and generally have a single, circular chromosome located in a nucleoid. Eukaryotic cells have a nucleus surrounded by a complex nuclear membrane that contains multiple, rod-shaped chromosomes.[1]

All plant cells and animal cells are eukaryotic. Some microorganisms are composed of prokaryotic cells, whereas others are composed of eukaryotic cells. Prokaryotic microorganisms are classified within the domains Archaea and Bacteria, whereas eukaryotic organisms are classified within the domain Eukarya.

The structures inside a cell are analogous to the organs inside a human body, with unique structures suited to specific functions. Some of the structures found in prokaryotic cells are similar to those found in some eukaryotic cells; others are unique to prokaryotes. Although there are some exceptions, eukaryotic cells tend to be larger than prokaryotic cells. The comparatively larger size of eukaryotic cells dictates the need to compartmentalize various chemical processes within different areas of the cell, using complex membrane-bound organelles. In contrast, prokaryotic cells generally lack membrane-bound organelles; however, they often contain inclusions that compartmentalize their cytoplasm. Figure 2.10 illustrates structures typically associated with prokaryotic cells. These structures are described in more detail in the next section.

A typical prokaryotic cell contains a cell membrane, chromosomal DNA that is concentrated in a nucleoid, ribosomes, and a cell wall. Some prokaryotic cells may also possess flagella, pili, fimbriae, and capsules.
Figure 2.10 A typical prokaryotic cell contains a cell membrane, chromosomal DNA that is concentrated in a nucleoid, ribosomes, and a cell wall. Some prokaryotic cells may also possess flagella, pili, fimbriae, and capsules.

Common Cell Morphologies and Arrangements

Individual cells of a particular prokaryotic organism are typically similar in shape, or cell morphology. Although thousands of prokaryotic organisms have been identified, only a handful of cell morphologies are commonly seen microscopically. Figure 2.11 names and illustrates cell morphologies commonly found in prokaryotic cell.

(credit “Coccus” micrograph: modification of work by Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit “Coccobacillus” micrograph: modification of work by Janice Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit “Spirochete” micrograph: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Figure 2.11 (credit “Coccus” micrograph: modification of work by Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit “Coccobacillus” micrograph: modification of work by Janice Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit “Spirochete” micrograph: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • What are the fundamental components of a prokaryotic cell?

The Nucleoid

All cellular life has a DNA genome organized into one or more chromosomes. Prokaryotic chromosomes are typically circular, haploid (unpaired), and not bound by a complex nuclear membrane. Prokaryotic DNA and DNA-associated proteins are concentrated within the nucleoid region of the cell (Figure 2.12). In general, prokaryotic DNA interacts with nucleoid-associated proteins (NAPs) that assist in the organization and packaging of the chromosome. In bacteria, NAPs function similar to histones, which are the DNA-organizing proteins found in eukaryotic cells. In archaea, the nucleoid is organized by either NAPs or histone-like DNA organizing proteins.

The nucleoid region (the area enclosed by the green dashed line) is a condensed area of DNA found within prokaryotic cells. Because of the density of the area, it does not readily stain and appears lighter in color when viewed with a transmission electron microscope.
Figure 2.12 The nucleoid region (the area enclosed by the green dashed line) is a condensed area of DNA found within prokaryotic cells. Because of the density of the area, it does not readily stain and appears lighter in color when viewed with a transmission electron microscope.

Plasmids

Prokaryotic cells may also contain extrachromosomal DNA, or DNA that is not part of the chromosome. This extrachromosomal DNA is found in plasmids, which are small, circular, double-stranded DNA molecules. Cells that have plasmids often have hundreds of them within a single cell. Plasmids are more commonly found in bacteria; however, plasmids have been found in archaea and eukaryotic organisms. Plasmids often carry genes that confer advantageous traits such as antibiotic resistance; thus, they are important to the survival of the organism.

Ribosomes

All cellular life synthesizes proteins, and organisms in all three domains of life possess ribosomes, structures responsible for protein synthesis. However, ribosomes in each of the three domains are structurally different. Ribosomes, themselves, are constructed from proteins, along with ribosomal RNA (rRNA). Prokaryotic ribosomes are found in the cytoplasm. They are called 70S ribosomes because they have a size of 70S (Figure 2.13), whereas eukaryotic cytoplasmic ribosomes have a size of 80S. (The S stands for Svedberg unit, a measure of sedimentation in an ultracentrifuge, which is based on size, shape, and surface qualities of the structure being analyzed). Although they are the same size, bacterial and archaeal ribosomes have different proteins and rRNA molecules, and the archaeal versions are more similar to their eukaryotic counterparts than to those found in bacteria.

Prokaryotic ribosomes (70S) are composed of two subunits: the 30S (small subunit) and the 50S (large subunit), each of which are composed of protein and rRNA components.
Figure 2.13 Prokaryotic ribosomes (70S) are composed of two subunits: the 30S (small subunit) and the 50S (large subunit), each of which are composed of protein and rRNA components.

Endospores

Bacterial cells are generally observed as vegetative cells, but some genera of bacteria have the ability to form endospores, structures that essentially protect the bacterial genome in a dormant state when environmental conditions are unfavorable. Endospores (not to be confused with the reproductive spores formed by fungi) allow some bacterial cells to survive long periods without food or water, as well as exposure to chemicals, extreme temperatures, and even radiation. Table 2.1 compares the characteristics of vegetative cells and endospores.

Characteristics of Vegetative Cells versus Endospores

Vegetative Cells

Endospores

Sensitive to extreme temperatures and radiation

Resistant to extreme temperatures and radiation

Gram-positive

Do not absorb Gram stain, only special endospore stains

Normal water content and enzymatic activity

Dehydrated; no metabolic activity

Capable of active growth and metabolism

Dormant; no growth or metabolic activity

Table 2.1

The process by which vegetative cells transform into endospores is called sporulation, and it generally begins when nutrients become depleted or environmental conditions become otherwise unfavorable (Figure 2.14). The process begins with the formation of a septum in the vegetative bacterial cell. The septum divides the cell asymmetrically, separating a DNA forespore from the mother cell. The forespore, which will form the core of the endospore, is essentially a copy of the cell’s chromosomes, and is separated from the mother cell by a second membrane. A cortex gradually forms around the forespore by laying down layers of calcium and dipicolinic acid between membranes. A protein spore coat then forms around the cortex while the DNA of the mother cell disintegrates. Further maturation of the endospore occurs with the formation of an outermost exosporium. The endospore is released upon disintegration of the mother cell, completing sporulation.

(a) Sporulation begins following asymmetric cell division. The forespore becomes surrounded by a double layer of membrane, a cortex, and a protein spore coat, before being released as a mature endospore upon disintegration of the mother cell. (b) An electron micrograph of a Carboxydothermus hydrogenoformans endospore. (c) These Bacillus spp. cells are undergoing sporulation. The endospores have been visualized using Malachite Green spore stain.
Figure 2.14 (a) Sporulation begins following asymmetric cell division. The forespore becomes surrounded by a double layer of membrane, a cortex, and a protein spore coat, before being released as a mature endospore upon disintegration of the mother cell. (b) An electron micrograph of a Carboxydothermus hydrogenoformans endospore. These Bacillus spp. cells are undergoing sporulation. The endospores have been visualized using Malachite Green spore stain. (credit b: modification of work by Jonathan Eisen)

Endospores of certain species have been shown to persist in a dormant state for extended periods of time, up to thousands of years.[2] However, when living conditions improve, endospores undergo germination, reentering a vegetative state. After germination, the cell becomes metabolically active again and is able to carry out all of its normal functions, including growth and cell division.

Not all bacteria have the ability to form endospores; however, there are a number of clinically significant endospore- forming gram-positive bacteria of the genera Bacillus and Clostridium. Pathogens such as these are particularly difficult to combat because their endospores are so hard to kill.

  • What is an inclusion?
  • What is the function of an endospore?

Plasma Membrane

Structures that enclose the cytoplasm and internal structures of the cell are known collectively as the cell envelope. In prokaryotic cells, the structures of the cell envelope vary depending on the type of cell and organism. Most (but not all) prokaryotic cells have a cell wall, but the makeup of this cell wall varies. All cells (prokaryotic and eukaryotic) have a plasma membrane (also called cytoplasmic membrane or cell membrane) that exhibits selective permeability, allowing some molecules to enter or leave the cell while restricting the passage of others.

The structure of the plasma membrane is often described in terms of the fluid mosaic model, which refers to the ability of membrane components to move fluidly within the plane of the membrane, as well as the mosaic-like composition of the components, which include a diverse array of lipid and protein components (Figure 2.15). The plasma membrane structure of most bacterial and eukaryotic cell types is a bilayer composed mainly of phospholipids formed with ester linkages and proteins. These phospholipids and proteins have the ability to move laterally within the plane of the membranes as well as between the two phospholipid layers.

The bacterial plasma membrane is a phospholipid bilayer with a variety of embedded proteins that perform various functions for the cell. Note the presence of glycoproteins and glycolipids, whose carbohydrate components extend out from the surface of the cell. The abundance and arrangement of these proteins and lipids can vary greatly between species.
Figure 2.15 The bacterial plasma membrane is a phospholipid bilayer with a variety of embedded proteins that perform various functions for the cell. Note the presence of glycoproteins and glycolipids, whose carbohydrate components extend out from the surface of the cell. The abundance and arrangement of these proteins and lipids can vary greatly between species.

Archaeal membranes are fundamentally different from bacterial and eukaryotic membranes in a few significant ways. First, archaeal membrane phospholipids are formed with ether linkages, in contrast to the ester linkages found in bacterial or eukaryotic cell membranes. Second, archaeal phospholipids have branched chains, whereas those of bacterial and eukaryotic cells are straight chained. Finally, although some archaeal membranes can be formed of bilayers like those found in bacteria and eukaryotes, other archaeal plasma membranes are lipid monolayers.

Proteins on the cell’s surface are important for a variety of functions, including cell-to-cell communication, and sensing environmental conditions and pathogenic virulence factors. Membrane proteins and phospholipids may have carbohydrates (sugars) associated with them and are called glycoproteins or glycolipids, respectively. These glycoprotein and glycolipid complexes extend out from the surface of the cell, allowing the cell to interact with the external environment (Figure 2.15). Glycoproteins and glycolipids in the plasma membrane can vary considerably in chemical composition among archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes, allowing scientists to use them to characterize unique species.

Plasma membranes from different cells types also contain unique phospholipids, which contain fatty acids. Phospholipid-derived fatty acid analysis (PLFA) profiles can be used to identify unique types of cells based on differences in fatty acids. Archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes each have a unique PFLA profile.

Photosynthetic Membrane Structures

Some prokaryotic cells, namely cyanobacteria and photosynthetic bacteria, have membrane structures that enable them to perform photosynthesis. These structures consist of an infolding of the plasma membrane that encloses photosynthetic pigments such as green chlorophylls and bacteriochlorophylls. In cyanobacteria, these membrane structures are called thylakoids; in photosynthetic bacteria, they are called chromatophores, lamellae, or chlorosomes.

Cell Wall

The primary function of the cell wall is to protect the cell from harsh conditions in the outside environment. When present, there are notable similarities and differences among the cell walls of archaea, bacteria, and eukaryotes.

The major component of bacterial cell walls is called peptidoglycan (or murein); it is only found in bacteria. Structurally, peptidoglycan resembles a layer of meshwork or fabric (Figure 2.16). Each layer is composed of long chains of alternating molecules of N-acetylglucosamine (NAG) and N-acetylmuramic acid (NAM). The structure of the long chains has significant two-dimensional tensile strength due to the formation of peptide bridges that connect NAG and NAM within each peptidoglycan layer. In gram-negative bacteria, tetrapeptide chains extending from each NAM unit are directly cross-linked, whereas in gram-positive bacteria, these tetrapeptide chains are linked by pentaglycine cross-bridges. Peptidoglycan subunits are made inside of the bacterial cell and then exported and assembled in layers, giving the cell its shape.

Peptidoglycan is composed of polymers of alternating NAM and NAG subunits, which are cross-linked by peptide bridges linking NAM subunits from various glycan chains. This provides the cell wall with tensile strength in two dimensions.
Figure 2.16 Peptidoglycan is composed of polymers of alternating NAM and NAG subunits, which are cross-linked by peptide bridges linking NAM subunits from various glycan chains. This provides the cell wall with tensile strength in two dimensions.

The Gram staining protocol is used to differentiate two common types of cell wall structures (Figure 2.17). Gram-positive cells have a cell wall consisting of many layers of peptidoglycan totaling 30–100 nm in thickness. These peptidoglycan layers are commonly embedded with teichoic acids (TAs), carbohydrate chains that extend through and beyond the peptidoglycan layer.[3] TA is thought to stabilize peptidoglycan by increasing its rigidity. TA also plays a role in the ability of pathogenic gram-positive bacteria such as Streptococcus to bind to certain proteins on the surface of host cells, enhancing their ability to cause infection.

Bacteria contain two common cell wall structural types. Gram-positive cell walls are structurally simple, containing a thick layer of peptidoglycan with embedded teichoic acid external to the plasma membrane. Gram- negative cell walls are structurally more complex, containing three layers: the inner membrane, a thin layer of peptidoglycan, and an outer membrane containing lipopolysaccharide.
Figure 2.17 Bacteria contain two common cell wall structural types. Gram-positive cell walls are structurally simple, containing a thick layer of peptidoglycan with embedded teichoic acid external to the plasma membrane.[footnote]B. Zuber et al. “Granular Layer in the Periplasmic Space of Gram-Positive Bacteria and Fine Structures of Enterococcus gallinarum and Streptococcus gordonii Septa Revealed by Cryo-Electron Microscopy of Vitreous Sections.” Journal of Bacteriology 188 no. 18 (2006):6652–6660[/footnote] Gram- negative cell walls are structurally more complex, containing three layers: the inner membrane, a thin layer of peptidoglycan, and an outer membrane containing lipopolysaccharide. (credit: modification of work by “Franciscosp2”/Wikimedia Commons)

 

Gram-negative cells have a much thinner layer of peptidoglycan (no more than about 4 nm thick[4]) than gram- positive cells, and the overall structure of their cell envelope is more complex. In gram-negative cells, a gel-like matrix occupies the periplasmic space between the cell wall and the plasma membrane, and there is a second lipid bilayer called the outer membrane, which is external to the peptidoglycan layer (Figure 2.17). This outer membrane is attached to the peptidoglycan by murein lipoprotein. The outer leaflet of the outer membrane contains the molecule lipopolysaccharide (LPS), which functions as an endotoxin in infections involving gram-negative bacteria, contributing to symptoms such as fever, hemorrhaging, and septic shock. Each LPS molecule is composed of Lipid A, a core polysaccharide, and an O side chain that is composed of sugar-like molecules that comprise the external face of the LPS (Figure 2.18). The composition of the O side chain varies between different species and strains of bacteria. Parts of the O side chain called antigens can be detected using serological or immunological tests to identify specific pathogenic strains like Escherichia coli O157:H7, a deadly strain of bacteria that causes bloody diarrhea and kidney failure.

Archaeal cell wall structure differs from that of bacteria in several significant ways. First, archaeal cell walls do not contain peptidoglycan; instead, they contain a similar polymer called pseudopeptidoglycan (pseudomurein) in which NAM is replaced with a different subunit. Other archaea may have a layer of glycoproteins or polysaccharides that serves as the cell wall instead of pseudopeptidoglycan. Last, as is the case with some bacterial species, there are a few archaea that appear to lack cell walls entirely.

The outer membrane of a gram-negative bacterial cell contains lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a toxin composed of Lipid A embedded in the outer membrane, a core polysaccharide, and the O side chain.
Figure 2.18 The outer membrane of a gram-negative bacterial cell contains lipopolysaccharide (LPS), a toxin composed of Lipid A embedded in the outer membrane, a core polysaccharide, and the O side chain.

Glycocalyces and S-Layers

Although most prokaryotic cells have cell walls, some may have additional cell envelope structures exterior to the cell wall, such as glycocalyces and S-layers. A glycocalyx is a sugar coat, of which there are two important types: capsules and slime layers. A capsule is an organized layer located outside of the cell wall and usually composed of polysaccharides or proteins (Figure 2.19). A slime layer is a less tightly organized layer that is only loosely attached to the cell wall and can be more easily washed off. Slime layers may be composed of polysaccharides, glycoproteins, or glycolipids.

 

(a) Capsules are a type of glycocalyx composed of an organized layer of polysaccharides. (b) A capsule stain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterial pathogen capable of causing many different types of infections in humans.
Figure 2.19 (a) Capsules are a type of glycocalyx composed of an organized layer of polysaccharides. (b) A capsule stain of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a bacterial pathogen capable of causing many different types of infections in humans. (credit b: modification of work by American Society for Microbiology)

Glycocalyces allows cells to adhere to surfaces, aiding in the formation of biofilms (colonies of microbes that form in layers on surfaces). In nature, most microbes live in mixed communities within biofilms, partly because the biofilm affords them some level of protection. Biofilms generally hold water like a sponge, preventing desiccation. They also protect cells from predation and hinder the action of antibiotics and disinfectants. All of these properties are advantageous to the microbes living in a biofilm, but they present challenges in a clinical setting, where the goal is often to eliminate microbes.

The ability to produce a capsule can contribute to a microbe’s pathogenicity (ability to cause disease) because the capsule can make it more difficult for phagocytic cells (such as white blood cells) to engulf and kill the microorganism. Streptococcus pneumoniae, for example, produces a capsule that is well known to aid in this bacterium’s pathogenicity.

An S-layer is another type of cell envelope structure; it is composed of a mixture of structural proteins and glycoproteins. In bacteria, S-layers are found outside the cell wall, but in some archaea, the S-layer serves as the cell wall. The exact function of S-layers is not entirely understood, and they are difficult to study; but available evidence suggests that they may play a variety of functions in different prokaryotic cells, such as helping the cell withstand osmotic pressure and, for certain pathogens, interacting with the host immune system.

Filamentous Appendages

Many bacterial cells have protein appendages embedded within their cell envelopes that extend outward, allowing interaction with the environment. These appendages can attach to other surfaces, transfer DNA, or provide movement. Filamentous appendages include fimbriae, pili, and flagella.

Fimbriae and Pili

Fimbriae and pili are structurally similar and, because differentiation between the two is problematic, these terms are often used interchangeably.[5][6] The term fimbriae commonly refers to short bristle-like proteins projecting from the cell surface by the hundreds. Fimbriae enable a cell to attach to surfaces and to other cells. For pathogenic bacteria, adherence to host cells is important for colonization, infectivity, and virulence. Adherence to surfaces is also important in biofilm formation.

The term pili (singular: pilus) commonly refers to longer, less numerous protein appendages that aid in attachment to surfaces (Figure 2.20). A specific type of pilus, called the F pilus or sex pilus, is important in the transfer of DNA between bacterial cells, which occurs between members of the same generation when two cells physically transfer or exchange parts of their respective genomes.

Bacteria may produce two different types of protein appendages that aid in surface attachment. Fimbriae typically are more numerous and shorter, whereas pili (shown here) are longer and less numerous per cell.
Figure 2.20 Bacteria may produce two different types of protein appendages that aid in surface attachment. Fimbriae typically are more numerous and shorter, whereas pili (shown here) are longer and less numerous per cell. (credit: modification of work by American Society for Microbiology)

Flagella

Flagella are structures used by cells to move in aqueous environments. Bacterial flagella act like propellers. They are stiff spiral filaments composed of flagellin protein subunits that extend outward from the cell and spin in solution. The basal body is the motor for the flagellum and is embedded in the plasma membrane (Figure 2.21). A hook region connects the basal body to the filament. Gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria have different basal body configurations due to differences in cell wall structure.

The basic structure of a bacterial flagellum consists of a basal body, hook, and filament. The basal body composition and arrangement differ between gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria.
Figure 2.21 The basic structure of a bacterial flagellum consists of a basal body, hook, and filament. The basal body composition and arrangement differ between gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria. (credit: modification of work by “LadyofHats”/Mariana Ruiz Villareal)
  • What is the peptidoglycan layer and how does it differ between gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria?

  1. Y.-H.M. Chan, W.F. Marshall. “Scaling Properties of Cell and Organelle Size.” Organogenesis 6 no. 2 (2010):88–96.
  2. F. Rothfuss, M Bender, R Conrad. “Survival and Activity of Bacteria in a Deep, Aged Lake Sediment (Lake Constance).” Microbial Ecology 33 no. 1 (1997):69–77.
  3. T.J. Silhavy, D. Kahne, S. Walker. “The Bacterial Cell Envelope.” Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology 2 no. 5 (2010):a000414.
  4. L. Gana, S. Chena, G.J. Jensena. “Molecular Organization of Gram-Negative Peptidoglycan.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 105 no. 48 (2008):18953–18957.
  5. J.A. Garnetta et al. “Structural Insights Into the Biogenesis and Biofilm Formation by the Escherichia coli Common Pilus.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109 no. 10 (2012):3950–3955.
  6. T. Proft, E.N. Baker. “Pili in Gram-Negative and Gram-Positive Bacteria—Structure, Assembly and Their Role in Disease.” Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences 66 (2009):613.

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