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Domains of Life

Introduces the three major domains of life and the distinguishing features of each domain.

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Domains of Life

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 and are found in extreme environments.
  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.  Archaea often live in extreme environments including hot springs, geysers, and salt flats. Bacteria do not live in these environments.

The Group D 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 decomposing other organisms or the remains of other organisms. These organisms absorb their nutrients from other organisms.
  3. Animalia: Animals 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.

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 Yes Varies. Plants and fungi have a cell wall; animals do not.
Nucleus (DNA inside a membrane) No No Yes
Organelles inside a membrane No No Yes


  • Archaea: Single-celled organism with no nucleus and a different cell wall than bacteria, often thriving in extreme environments.
  • asexual reproduction: Process of forming a new individual from a single.
  • Bacteria: Single-celled organisms that do not contain a nucleus.
  • cell wall: Tough outer layer of prokaryotic cells and plant cells; helps support and protect the cell.
  • DNA: Deoxyribonucleic acid; a nucleic acid that is the genetic material of all organisms.
  • domain: Three primary, broadest categories of living things.
  • Eukarya: Organisms that keep their genetic material, or DNA, inside the nucleus.
  • eukaryotic cell: Cell that contains a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles.
  • nucleus: 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.
  • organelle: Structure within the cell that has a specific role.
  • prokaryotic cell: Cell without a nucleus or membrane-bound organelles.


  • 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.


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. How do Archaea and Bacteria differ? How are they the same?
  4. Which domain of life seems to be absent for deep-subsurface communities?


  1. Compare and contrast the domains Archaea and Bacteria.
  2. Name three different examples of organisms in the domain Eukarya.

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