Prokaryote, relatively simple unicellular organism, such as a bacterium, characterized by the absence of a nucleus and other specialized cell structures. Scientists distinguish prokaryotes from eukaryotes, which are more complex organisms with cells that contain a nucleus, such as plants and animals.
Structure of prokaryotes
Prokaryotic cells are relatively small, ranging in size from 0.0001 to 0.003 mm (0.000004 to 0.0001 in) in diameter. With the exception of a few species, prokaryotic cells are surrounded by a protective cell wall. Just inside the cell wall of prokaryotes is the plasma membrane, a thin structure that is both flexible and strong. In both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, the plasma membrane is composed of two layers of phospholipid molecules interspersed with proteins, and regulates the traffic that flows in and out of the cell. The prokaryotic plasma membrane, however, carries out additional functions. It participates in replication of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) for cell division and synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), an energy molecule. In some prokaryotes, the plasma membrane is essential for photosynthesis, the process that uses light energy to convert carbon dioxide and water to glucose.
Reproduction of Prokaryotes
Most prokaryotes multiply by the asexual process of binary fission, in which the DNA of the organism replicates in the cytoplasm, the cell divides in two, and one DNA molecule passes to each newly formed cell. In addition, some prokaryotes undergo various processes of genetic recombination. For example, in the process called transformation, a bacterium removes one or more genes from one organism and incorporates the genes into its own genetic makeup. In conjugation two organisms exchange genes. In transduction a virus transports bacterial genes from one organism to another. Gene transfers account for the appearance of new biochemical traits in prokaryotes.
Like most organisms, prokaryotes require carbon and energy to create nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, and nucleic acids. Prokaryotes obtain carbon and energy from a variety of sources. Certain prokaryotes use carbon dioxide as their carbon source. Called autotrophs, these prokaryotes derive energy from different sources, such as photosynthesis or inorganic molecules. Photoautotrophs, including the cyanobacteria and the green sulfur and purple sulfur archaebacteria, derive their energy from light. Chemoautotrophs, such as the soil bacteria Nitrobacter and Nitrosomonas, derive their energy from inorganic compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and iron. Heterotrophs are organisms that rely on ready-made organic compounds such as glucose or alcohol for their carbon source. Heterotrophs obtain energy by degrading organic molecules, such as plant or animal matter. A small group of bacteria, the photoheterotrophs, use light as their energy source, while chemo heterotrophs use organic compounds for both their carbon and energy sources.
Importance of Prokaryotes
Prokaryotes play significant roles in our daily lives. In a process called nitrogen fixation, many species of cyanobacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen to nitrogenous compounds that other organisms use as food sources. Moreover, the photosynthesis occurring in cyanobacteria still contributes substantial amounts of oxygen to the atmosphere and stores the Sun’s energy in carbohydrate molecules. Cyanobacteria are the foundation for aquatic ecosystems, providing food for protozoa and other aquatic organisms. Cyanobacteria are threatened, however, by ultraviolet radiation, which penetrates the atmosphere as a result of the thinning ozone layer.