The Ribosomes


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In prokaryotes, multiple RNA polymerases can transcribe a single bacterial gene while numerous ribosomes concurrently translate the mRNA transcripts into polypeptides. In this way, a specific protein can rapidly reach a high concentration in the bacterial cell.

Source: OpenStax Microbiology

OpenStax Microbiology

A ribosome is a complex macromolecule composed of catalytic rRNAs (called ribozymes) and structural rRNAs, as well as many distinct polypeptides. Mature rRNAs make up approximately 50% of each ribosome. Prokaryotes have 70S ribosomes, whereas eukaryotes have 80S ribosomes in the cytoplasm and rough endoplasmic reticulum, and 70S ribosomes in mitochondria and chloroplasts. Ribosomes dissociate into large and small subunits when they are not synthesizing proteins and reassociate during the initiation of translation. In E. coli, the small subunit is described as 30S (which contains the 16S rRNA subunit), and the large subunit is 50S (which contains the 5S and 23S rRNA subunits), for a total of 70S (Svedberg units are not additive). Eukaryote ribosomes have a small 40S subunit (which contains the 18S rRNA subunit) and a large 60S subunit (which contains the 5S, 5.8S and 28S rRNA subunits), for a total of 80S. The small subunit is responsible for binding the mRNA template, whereas the large subunit binds tRNAs.

Each mRNA molecule is simultaneously translated by many ribosomes, all synthesizing protein in the same direction reading the mRNA from 5’ to 3’ and synthesizing the polypeptide from the N terminus to the C terminus. The complete structure containing an mRNA with multiple associated ribosomes is called a polyribosome (or polysome). In both bacteria and archaea, before transcriptional termination occurs, each protein-encoding transcript is already being used to begin synthesis of numerous copies of the encoded polypeptide(s) because the processes of transcription and translation can occur concurrently, forming polyribosomes (Figure 11.13). The reason why transcription and translation can occur simultaneously is because both of these processes occur in the same 5’ to 3’ direction, they both occur in the cytoplasm of the cell, and because the RNA transcript is not processed once it is transcribed. This allows a prokaryotic cell to respond to an environmental signal requiring new proteins very quickly. In contrast, in eukaryotic
cells, simultaneous transcription and translation is not possible. Although polyribosomes also form in eukaryotes, they cannot do so until RNA synthesis is complete and the RNA molecule has been modified and transported out of the nucleus.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: