Dictionary > Prokaryote


prokaryote definition

n., plural: prokaryotes
Definition: An organism lacking a distinct membrane-bound nucleus

Prokaryote refers to any of the group of organisms primarily characterized by the lack of true nucleus and other membrane-bound cell compartments: such as mitochondria and chloroplasts, and by the possession of a single loop of stable chromosomal DNA in the nucleoid region and cytoplasmic structures, such as plasma membrane, vacuoles, primitive cytoskeleton, and ribosomes. Examples of prokaryotes are bacteria and archaea.

Prokaryote Definition

prokaryote cell diagram
Schematic diagram of a prokaryotic cell.

A prokaryote is defined as any organism that is chiefly characterized by a cell devoid of a well-defined nucleus as opposed to a eukaryote that has a nucleus. Instead of a nucleus, the prokaryotes have a nucleoid region where the genetic materials are located.


The term prokaryote (plural: prokaryotes) came from the Latin pro, meaning “in favour of” or “on behalf of” and káry(on), meaning “nut“, “kernel”. The term prokaryotic is a derived word and used to refer to a prokaryote. Compare: eukaryote. Variant: procaryote.

Prokaryotic Cell

Prokaryotes are unicellular organisms that lack a well-defined nucleus. They have instead a nucleoid region in their cytoplasm where their genetic material occurs in most instances as a single, circular molecule of DNA. They generally reproduce asexually, which is by binary fission or by budding. Most of them are unicellular, others are capable of forming stable aggregate communities. Conjugation, apparently, is the counterpart of sexual reproduction in eukaryotes where two cells exchange genetic materials via a conjugation tube.

Although prokaryotes lack the true organelles found in a eukaryotic cell, they possess certain cytoplasmic structures. For instance, they have a primitive cytoskeleton. Flagellin is the cytoskeletal protein that confers structural support to bacteria that is essential during chemotaxis. Other cytoplasmic structures are ribosomes, carboxysomes, chlorosomes, magnetosomes, and thylakoid systems. Some references regard them as prokaryotic organelles. However, they are not bounded by lipids; rather, they are proteinaceous. For example, carboxysomes are protein-shell compartments that are involved in carbon fixation in certain bacteria. Chlorosomes are light-harvesting complex in green sulfur bacteria. Magnetosomes are present in magnetotactic bacteria. Thylakoids are present in photosynthetic bacteria, such as cyanobacteria. Some prokaryotes have a cell wall that surrounds the cell membrane. Bacterial cell walls are composed chiefly of peptidoglycan. Its thickness can be used to determine if the bacterial cell is Gram-positive (thicker cell wall) or Gram-negative (thinner cell wall). As for the archaea, their cell wall is made up of glycoprotein S-layers, pseudopeptidoglycan, or polysaccharides rather than peptidoglycan (except for a group of methanogens).

Eukaryote vs. Prokaryote

Eukaryotes are organisms in which at the cellular level most of their genetic material is located inside a double-membraned nucleus. Other genetic materials outside the nucleus are found in the mitochondria and the chloroplasts (if present). The chromosomes of eukaryotes are linear strands of DNA. Both eukaryotes and prokaryotes store their genetic information in their genes. The main source of metabolic energy is ATP.

In prokaryotes, the chromosome is mostly circular. Prokaryotes are smaller in size than eukaryotes. Therefore, prokaryotes have a large surface area to volume ratio. And because of this, they have a high metabolic rate and high growth rate.

Both eukaryotes and prokaryotes have ribosomes that serve as the site of protein synthesis. However, the composition of their ribosomes differs. The prokaryotic ribosome is 70S and it is made up of 50S (large subunit) and 30S (small subunit). The eukaryotic ribosome is 80S and it consists of 60S (large subunit) and 40S (small subunit). [N.B. the S units do not add up since they represent measures of sedimentation rate, not mass.]

Examples of prokaryotes are eubacteria and archaea.




Prokaryotes include the domains, Eubacteria and Archaea. Examples of prokaryotes are bacteria, archaea, and cyanobacteria (blue-green algae).


Bacteria are microscopic, single-celled organisms that belong to Domain Eubacteria (true bacteria). Their cells lack lipid-bound subcellular compartments and their DNA is found in the cytoplasm (nucleoid region) rather than inside a nucleus. They reproduce by fission or by forming spores. They can inhabit all kinds of environments, such as in soil, acidic hot springs, radioactive waste, seawater, deep in the Earths crust, in the stratosphere, and even in the bodies of other organisms. Bacteria include the bacilli, the cocci, the spirochetes, and the vibrios.


Archaea belong to the Domain Archaea. They are unicellular microorganisms that are genetically distinct from bacteria and eukaryotes. Similar to prokaryotes, they lack a nucleus. However, the genes of archaebacterial are more similar to eukaryotes. Both of them produce certain enzymes that are used in transcription, translation, and other metabolic pathways. Many archaebacterial are found thriving in extreme habitats. Archaebacteria include the halophiles (those inhabiting extremely salty environments), the methanogens (archaea species producing methane), and the thermophiles (those that can thrive in extremely hot habitats).


A diagram of a typical cyanobacterial cell showing parts.
A diagram of a typical cyanobacterial cell showing parts.

Cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, are microorganisms that are formerly considered as protists for being single-celled and photosynthetic. However, they now belong to a group or phylum of photosynthetic bacteria that inhabit aquatic habitats and moist soils. Cyanobacteria are ecologically significant because a huge percentage of gaseous oxygen comes from their photosynthetic activity. They may lack a nucleus but they possess microcompartments (e.g. thylakoids and carboxysomes). They also have photosynthetic pigments (particularly, phycobiliproteins) that account for the bluish-green color of their cells. Cyanobacteria include Chroococcales, Pleurocapsales, Oscillatoriales, Nostocales, and



  1. Prokaryotic vs. Eukaryotic. (2019). Retrieved from Nku.edu website: https://www.nku.edu/~whitsonma/Bio150LSite/Lab%205%20Cells/Bio150LRCellTypes.htm
  2. Long, B. M., Badger, M. R., Whitney, S. M., & Price, G. D. (October 2007). “Analysis of carboxysomes from Synechococcus PCC7942 reveals multiple Rubisco complexes with carboxysomal proteins CcmM and CcaA”. The Journal of Biological
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  4. Armstronf, J. E. (2015). How the Earth Turned Green: A Brief 3.8-Billion-Year History of Plants. The University of Chicago Press. Retrieved from https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/H/bo16465693.html



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1. An organism without a nucleus and other membrane-bound organelles
2. Which of the following is present in a typical bacterial cell?
3. All of these groups are prokaryotes except for ...
4. Prokaryotes thriving in extremely hot habitats
5. Prokaryotic ribosome

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