The Prokaryotic Cell


In this illustration, the prokaryotic cell is rod shaped. The circular chromosome is concentrated in a region called the nucleoid. The fluid inside the cell is called the cytoplasm. Ribosomes, depicted as small circles, float in the cytoplasm. The cytoplasm is encased by a plasma membrane, which in turn is encased by a cell wall. A capsule surrounds the cell wall. The bacterium depicted has a flagellum protruding from one narrow end. Pili are small protrusions that project from the capsule all over the bacterium, like hair.
The features of a typical prokaryotic cell. Flagella, capsules, and pili are not found in all prokaryotes. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

Prokaryotes are unicellular organisms that lack membrane-bound organelles or other internal membrane-bound structures. Their chromosome—usually single—consists of a piece of circular, double-stranded DNA located in an area of the cell called the nucleoid. Most prokaryotes have a cell wall outside the plasma membrane. The cell wall functions as a protective layer, and it is responsible for the organism’s shape. Some bacterial species have a capsule outside the cell wall. The capsule enables the organism to attach to surfaces, protects it from dehydration and attack by phagocytic cells, and makes pathogens more resistant to our immune responses. Some species also have flagella (singular, flagellum) used for locomotion, and pili (singular, pilus) used for attachment to surfaces including the surfaces of other cells. Plasmids, which consist of extra-chromosomal DNA, are also present in many species of bacteria and archaea.

Prokaryotes are divided into two different domains, Bacteria and Archaea, which together with Eukarya, comprise the three domains of life.

 The trunk of the phylogenetic tree is a universal ancestor. The tree forms two branches. One branch leads to the domain bacteria, which includes the phyla proteobacteria, chlamydias, spirochetes, cyanobacteria, and Gram-positive bacteria. The other branch branches again, into the eukarya and archaea domains. Domain archaea includes the phyla euryarchaeotes, crenarchaeotes, nanoarchaeotes, and korarchaeotea.
The three domains of living organisms. Bacteria and Archaea are both prokaryotes but differ enough to be placed in separate domains. An ancestor of modern Archaea is believed to have given rise to Eukarya, the third domain of life. Major groups of Archaea and Bacteria are shown. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

Major bacterial phyla include the Proteobacteria, the Chlamydias, the Spirochaetes, the photosynthetic Cyanobacteria, and the Gram-positive bacteria. The Proteobacteria are in turn subdivided into several classes, from the Alpha- to the Epsilon proteobacteria. Eukaryotic mitochondria are thought to be the descendants of alphaproteobacteria, while eukaryotic chloroplasts are derived from cyanobacteria.

Characteristics of the five phyla of bacteria are described. The first phylum described is proteobacteria, which includes five classes, alpha, beta, gamma, delta and epsilon. Most species of Alpha Proteobacteria are photoautotrophic but some are symbionts of plants and animals, and others are pathogens. Eukaryotic mitochondria are thought be derived from bacteria in this group. Representative species include Rhizobium, a nitrogen-fixing endosymbiont associated with the roots of legumes, and Rickettsia, obligate intracellular parasite that causes typhus and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (but not rickets, which is caused by Vitamin C deficiency). A micrograph shows rod-shaped Rickettsia rickettsii inside a much larger eukaryotic cell. Beta Proteobacteria is a diverse group of bacteria. Some species play an important role in the nitrogen cycle. Representative species include Nitrosomas, which oxidize ammonia into nitrate, and Spirillum minus, which causes rat bite fever. A micrograph of spiral-shaped Spirillum minus is shown. Gamma Proteobacteria include many are beneficial symbionts that populate the human gut, as well as familiar human pathogens. Some species from this subgroup oxidize sulfur compounds. Representative species include Escherichia coli, normally beneficial microbe of the human gut, but some strains cause disease; Salmonella, certain strains of which cause food poisoning, and typhoid fever; Yersinia pestis–the causative agent of Bubonic plague; Psuedomonas aeruganosa– causes lung infections; Vibrio cholera, the causative agent of cholera, and Chromatium–sulfur producing bacteria bacteria that oxidize sulfur, producing H2S. Micrograph shows rod-shaped Vibrio cholera, which are about 1 micron long. Some species of delta Proteobacteria generate a spore-forming fruiting body in adverse conditions. Others reduce sulfate and sulfur. Representative species include Myxobacteria, which generate spore-forming fruiting bodies in adverse conditions and Desulfovibrio vulgaris, an aneorobic, sulfur-reducing bacterium. Micrograph shows a bent rod-shaped Desulfovibrio vulgaris bacterium with a long flagellum. Epsilon Proteobacteria includes many species that inhabit the digestive tract of animals as symbionts or pathogens. Bacteria from this group have been found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents and cold seep habitats. The next phylum described is chlamydias. All members of this group are obligate intracellular parasites of animal cells. Cells walls lack peptidoglycan. Micrograph shows a pap smear of cells infected with Chlamydia trachomatis. Chlamydia infection is the most common sexually transmitted disease and can lead to blindness. All members of the phylum Spirochetes have spiral-shaped cells. Most are free-living anaerobes, but some are pathogenic. Flagella run lengthwise in the periplasmic space between the inner and outer membrane. Representative species include Treponema pallidum, the causative agent of syphilis and Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease Micrograph shows corkscrew-shaped Trepanema pallidum, about 1 micron across. Bacteria in the phylum Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, obtain their energy through photosynthesis. They are ubiquitous, found in terrestrial, marine, and freshwater environments. Eukaryotic chloroplasts are thought be derived from bacteria in this group. The cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus is believed to be the most abundant photosynthetic organism on earth, responsible for generating half the world’s oxygen. Micrograph shows a long, thin rod-shaped species called Phormidium. Gram-positive Bacteria have a thick cell wall and lack an outer membrane. Soil-dwelling members of this subgroup decompose organic matter. Some species cause disease. Representative species include Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax; Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism; Clostridium difficile, which causes diarrhea during antibiotic therapy; Streptomyces, from which many antibiotics, including streptomyocin, are derived; and Mycoplasmas, the smallest known bacteria, which lack a cell wall. Some are free-living, and some are pathogenic. Micrograph shows Clostridium difficile, which are rod-shaped and about 3 microns long.
The Proteobacteria. Phylum Proteobacteria is one of up to 52 bacteria phyla. Proteobacteria is further subdivided into five classes, Alpha through Epsilon. (credit “Rickettsia rickettsia”: modification of work by CDC; credit “Spirillum minus”: modification of work by Wolframm Adlassnig; credit “Vibrio cholera”: modification of work by Janice Haney Carr, CDC; credit “Desulfovibrio vulgaris”: modification of work by Graham Bradley; credit “Campylobacter”: modification of work by De Wood, Pooley, USDA, ARS, EMU; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)
Other bacterial phyla. Chlamydia, Spirochetes, Cyanobacteria, and Gram-positive bacteria are described in this table. Note that bacterial shape is not phylum-dependent; bacteria within a phylum may be cocci, rod-shaped, or spiral. (credit “Chlamydia trachomatis”: modification of work by Dr. Lance Liotta Laboratory, NCI; credit “Treponema pallidum”: modification of work by Dr. David Cox, CDC; credit “Phormidium”: modification of work by USGS; credit “Clostridium difficile”: modification of work by Lois S. Wiggs, CDC; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)
Characteristics of the four phyla of archaea are described. Euryarchaeotes includes methanogens, which produce methane as a metabolic waste product, and halobacteria, which live in an extreme saline environment. Methanogens cause flatulence in humans and other animals. Halobacteria can grow in large blooms that appear reddish, due to the presence of bacterirhodopsin in the membrane. Bacteriorhodopsin is related to the retinal pigment rhodopsin. Micrograph shows rod shaped Halobacterium. Members of the ubiquitous Crenarchaeotes phylum play an important role in the fixation of carbon. Many members of this group are sulfur dependent extremophiles. Some are thermophilic or hyperthermophilic. Micrograph shows cocci shaped Sulfolobus, a genus which grows in volcanic springs at temperatures between 75 degrees and 80 degrees Celsius and at a lower case p upper case H between 2 and 3. The phylum Nanoarchaeotes currently contains only one species, Nanoarchaeum equitans, which has been isolated from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and from the a hydrothermal vent at Yellowstone National Park. It is an obligate symbiont with Ignococcus, another species of archaebacteria. Micrograph shows two small, round N. equitans cells attached to a larger Ignococcus cell. Korarchaeotes are considered to be one of the most primitive forms of life and so far have only been found in the Obsidian Pool, a hot spring at Yellowstone National Park. Micrograph shows a variety of specimens from this group which vary in shape.
Archaeal phyla. Archaea are separated into four phyla: the Korarchaeota, Euryarchaeota, Crenarchaeota, and Nanoarchaeota. (credit “Halobacterium”: modification of work by NASA; credit “Nanoarchaeotum equitans”: modification of work by Karl O. Stetter; credit “Korarchaeota”: modification of work by Office of Science of the U.S. Dept. of Energy; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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