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. The image abovenames and illustrates cell morphologies commonly found in prokaryotic cells. In addition to cellular shape, prokaryotic cells of the same species may group together in certain distinctive arrangements depending on the plane of cell division.
In most prokaryotic cells, morphology is maintained by the cell wall in combination with cytoskeletal elements. The cell wall is a structure found in most prokaryotes and some eukaryotes; it envelopes the cell membrane, protecting the cell from changes in osmotic pressure. Osmotic pressure occurs because of differences in the concentration of solutes on opposing sides of a semipermeable membrane. Water is able to pass through a semipermeable membrane, but solutes (dissolved molecules like salts, sugars, and other compounds) cannot. When the concentration of solutes is greater on one side of the membrane, water diffuses across the membrane from the side with the lower concentration (more water) to the side with the higher concentration (less water) until the concentrations on both sides become equal. This diffusion of water is called osmosis, and it can cause extreme osmotic pressure on a cell when its external environment changes.
The external environment of a cell can be described as an isotonic, hypertonic, or hypotonic medium. In an isotonic medium, the solute concentrations inside and outside the cell are approximately equal, so there is no net movement of water across the cell membrane. In a hypertonic medium, the solute concentration outside the cell exceeds that inside the cell, so water diffuses out of the cell and into the external medium. In a hypotonic medium, the solute concentration inside the cell exceeds that outside of the cell, so water will move by osmosis into the cell. This causes the cell to swell and potentially lyse, or burst.
The degree to which a particular cell is able to withstand changes in osmotic pressure is called tonicity. Cells that have a cell wall are better able to withstand subtle changes in osmotic pressure and maintain their shape. In hypertonic environments, cells that lack a cell wall can become dehydrated, causing crenation, or shriveling of the cell; the plasma membrane contracts and appears scalloped or notched. By contrast, cells that possess a cell wall undergo plasmolysis rather than crenation. In plasmolysis, the plasma membrane contracts and detaches from the cell wall, and there is a decrease in interior volume, but the cell wall remains intact, thus allowing the cell to maintain some shape and integrity for a period of time. Likewise, cells that lack a cell wall are more prone to lysis in hypotonic environments. The presence of a cell wall allows the cell to maintain its shape and integrity for a longer time before lysing.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology