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2.2: Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic Cells

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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Are bacteria cells like our cells?

Yes and no. Bacteria cells are similar to our cells in some ways. Like our cells, bacteria cells have DNA and a plasma membrane. But bacteria are unique in other ways. They are called prokaryotic cells because of these differences.

Prokaryotic and Eukaryotic

There are two basic types of cells, prokaryotic cells and eukaryotic cells. The main difference between eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells is that eukaryotic cells have a nucleus. The nucleus is where cells store their DNA, which is the genetic material. The nucleus is surrounded by a membrane. Prokaryotic cells do not have a nucleus. Instead, their DNA floats around inside the cell. Organisms with prokaryotic cells are called prokaryotes. All prokaryotes are single-celled (unicellular) organisms. Bacteria and Archaea are the only prokaryotes. Organisms with eukaryotic cells are called eukaryotes. Animals, plants, fungi, and protists are eukaryotes. All multicellular organisms are eukaryotes. Eukaryotes may also be single-celled.

Both prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells have structures in common. All cells have a plasma membrane, ribosomes, cytoplasm, and DNA. The plasma membrane, or cell membrane, is the phospholipid layer that surrounds the cell and protects it from the outside environment. Ribosomes are the non-membrane bound organelles where proteins are made, a process called protein synthesis. The cytoplasm is all the contents of the cell inside the cell membrane, not including the nucleus.

Eukaryotic Cells

Eukaryotic cells usually have multiple chromosomes, composed of DNA and protein. Some eukaryotic species have just a few chromosomes, others have close to 100 or more. These chromosomes are protected within the nucleus. In addition to a nucleus, eukaryotic cells include other membrane-bound structures called organelles. Organelles allow eukaryotic cells to be more specialized than prokaryotic cells. Pictured below are the organelles of eukaryotic cells (Figure below), including the mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, and Golgi apparatus. These will be discussed in additional concepts.

Organelles of a eukaryotic cell

Eukaryotic cells contain a nucleus and various other special compartments surrounded by membranes, called organelles. The nucleus is where the DNA (chromatin) is stored. Organelles give eukaryotic cells more functions than prokaryotic cells.

Prokaryotic Cells

Prokaryotic cells (Figure below) are usually smaller and simpler than eukaryotic cells. They do not have a nucleus or other membrane-bound organelles. In prokaryotic cells, the DNA, or genetic material, forms a single large circle that coils up on itself. The DNA is located in the main part of the cell.

Diagram of a prokaryotic cell

Prokaryotes do not have a nucleus. Instead, their genetic material is located in the main part of the cell.

Prokaryotic Cells Eukaryotic Cells
Nucleus No Yes
DNA Single circular piece of DNA Multiple chromosomes
Membrane-Bound Organelles No Yes
Examples Bacteria Plants, animals, fungi


  • All cells have a plasma membrane, ribosomes, cytoplasm, and DNA.
  • Prokaryotic cells lack a nucleus and membrane-bound structures.
  • Eukaryotic cells have a nucleus and membrane-bound structures called organelles.

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Use the resource below to answer the questions that follow.

  1. What does "naked" DNA mean? What kinds of organisms have "naked" DNA?
  2. Where do you find membrane bound organelles? Are plasmids membrane bound organelles?
  3. What is the function of mitochondria in prokaryotes?


  1. What do all cells have in common?
  2. What are organelles?
  3. Compare the location of the genetic material of eukaryotic cells and prokaryotic cells.
  4. What are ribosomes?
  5. What are the only prokaryotes?
  6. Which prokaryotes are multicellular?

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cytoplasm Entire contents of the cell inside the plasma membrane, excluding the nucleus.
DNA Deoxyribonucleic acid; nucleic acid that is the genetic material of all organisms.
endoplasmic reticulum Organelle that is the site of lipid synthesis and protein modification.
eukaryote Organism with cells containing a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles.
eukaryotic cell Cell that contains a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles.
Golgi apparatus Organelle that processes and packages proteins.
mitochondria Organelle of the cell in which energy is generated.
mitochondrion (plural mitochondria): Organelle of the cell in which energy is generated.
nucleus Cell structure that contains the genetic material, DNA.
organelle Structure within the cell that has a specific role.
plasma membrane The lipid barrier that surrounds the cell; known as the cell membrane.
prokaryote Organism that lacks a nucleus; i.e. bacteria.
prokaryotic cell Cell without a nucleus or membrane-bound organelles.
ribosome Organelle in which proteins are made (protein synthesis).

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Difficulty Level:
At Grade
7 , 8
Date Created:
Nov 29, 2012
Last Modified:
Sep 05, 2016
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