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1.12: Domains of Life

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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What do you have in common with pond scum?

Humans are in the same domain as trees and algae, which makes up the "pond scum" you see here. What could they possibly have in common? It is the location of their DNA inside their cells. Their cells all have a nucleus that is home to their genetic material.

The Domains of Life

Let’s explore the domain , the least specific category of classification.

All of life can be divided into three domains, based on the type of cell of the organism:

  1. Bacteria : cells do not contain a nucleus.
  2. Archaea : cells do not contain a nucleus; they have a different cell wall from bacteria.
  3. Eukarya : cells do contain a nucleus.

Archaea and Bacteria

The Archaea and Bacteria domains ( Figure below ) are both entirely composed of small, single-celled organisms and seem very similar, but they also have significant differences. Both are composed of prokaryotic cells , which are cells without a nucleus. In addition, both domains are composed of species that reproduce asexually ( asexual reproduction ) by dividing in two. Both domains also have species with cells surrounded by a cell wall , however, the cell walls are made of different materials. Bacterial cell walls contain the polysaccharide peptidoglycan . Lastly, Archaea often live in extreme environments including hot springs, geysers, and salt flats. Bacteria do not live in these environments.

Pictures of bacteria and archaea

The Group A Streptococcus organism ( left ) is in the domain Bacteria, one of the three domains of life. The Halobacterium ( right ) is in the domain Archaea, another one of the three domains.


All of the cells in the domain Eukarya keep their genetic material, or DNA , inside the nucleus . The domain Eukarya is made up of four kingdoms:

  1. Plantae: Plants, such as trees and grasses, survive by capturing energy from the sun, a process called photosynthesis .
  2. Fungi: Fungi, such as mushrooms and molds, survive by "eating" other organisms or the remains of other organisms. These organisms absorb their nutrients from other organisms.
  3. Animalia: Animals also survive by eating other organisms or the remains of other organisms. Animals range from tiny ants to the largest whales, and include arthropods, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals ( Figure below ).
  4. Protista: Protists are not all descended from a single common ancestor in the way that plants, animals, and fungi are. Protists are all the eukaryotic organisms that do not fit into one of the other three kingdoms. They include many kinds of microscopic one-celled organisms, such as algae and plankton, but also giant seaweeds that can grow to be 200 feet long.

Picture showing the diversity of animals

Diversity of Animals. These photos give just an inkling of the diversity of organisms that belong to the animal kingdom. (A) Sponge, (B) Flatworm, (C) Flying Insect, (D) Frog, (E) Tiger, (F) Gorilla.

Plants, animals, fungi, and protists might seem very different, but remember that if you look through a microscope, you will find similar cells with a membrane-bound nucleus in all of them. These are eukaryotic cells . These cells also have membrane-bound organelles , which prokaryotic cells lack. The main characteristics of the three domains of life are summarized in Table below .

Archaea Bacteria Eukarya
Multicelluar No No Yes
Cell wall Yes, without peptidoglycan Yes, with peptidoglycan Varies. Plants and fungi have a cell wall; animals do not.
Nucleus (Membrane-Enclosed DNA) No No Yes
Membrane-Bound Organelles No No Yes


  • All life can be classified into three domains: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya.
  • Organisms in the domain Eukarya keep their genetic material in a nucleus and include the plants, animals, fungi, and protists.

Explore More

Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What are the three domains of life?
  2. What category do the individual organisms that we can see with our naked eye fall into?
  3. What is an extremophile? What domain is known for these organisms? (Note: recent work has shown that extremophiles are not the only members of this domain.)
  4. How do Archaea and Bacteria differ? How are they the same?
  5. Which domain of life seems to be absent for deep-subsurface communities?


  1. Compare and contrast the domains Archaea and Bacteria.
  2. What are the four kingdoms that make up the domain Eukarya?
  3. Name three different examples of organisms in the domain Eukarya.




Single-celled organism with no nucleus and a different cell wall than bacteria, often thriving in extreme environments.
asexual reproduction

asexual reproduction

Process of forming a new individual from a single parent.


Single-celled organisms that do not contain a nucleus.
cell wall

cell wall

Tough outer layer of prokaryotic cells and plant cells; helps support and protect the cell.


Deoxyribonucleic acid; nucleic acid that is the genetic material of all organisms.


Three primary, broadest categories of living things.


Organisms that keep their genetic material, or DNA, inside the nucleus.
eukaryotic cell

eukaryotic cell

Cell that contains a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles.


Membrane enclosed organelle in eukaryotic cells that contains the DNA; primary distinguishing feature between a eukaryotic and prokaryotic cell; the information center, containing instructions for making all the proteins in a cell, as well as how much of each one.


Structure within the cell that has a specific role.


Complex molecule consisting of sugars and amino acids that makes up the bacterial cell wall.


The process by which specific organisms (including all plants) use the sun's energy to make their own food from carbon dioxide and water; process that converts the energy of the sun, or solar energy, into carbohydrates, a type of chemical energy.
prokaryotic cell

prokaryotic cell

Cell without a nucleus or membrane-bound organelles.

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Difficulty Level:

At Grade


7 , 8

Date Created:

Nov 29, 2012

Last Modified:

Mar 11, 2015
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