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Despite their apparent differences, these two cell types have a lot in common. They perform most of the same kinds of functions, and in the same ways. Both are enclosed by plasma membranes, filled with cytoplasm, and loaded with small structures called ribosomes. Both have DNA which carries the archived instructions for operating the cell. And the similarities go far beyond the visible--physiologically they are very similar in many ways. For example, the DNA in the two cell types is precisely the same kind of DNA, and the genetic code for a prokaryotic cell is exactly the same genetic code used in eukaryotic cells.
Some things which seem to be differences aren't. For example, the prokaryotic cell has a cell wall, and this animal cell does not. However, many kinds of eukaryotic cells do have cell walls.
Despite all of these similarities, the differences are also clear. It's pretty obvious from these two little pictures that there are two general categories of difference between these two cell types: size and complexity. Eukaryotic cells are much larger and much more complex than prokaryotic cells. These two observations are not unrelated to each other.
If we take a closer look at the comparison of these cells, we see the following differences:
- Eukaryotic cells have a true nucleus, bound by a double membrane. Prokaryotic cells have no nucleus. The purpose of the nucleus is to sequester the DNA-related functions of the big eukaryotic cell into a smaller chamber, for the purpose of increased efficiency. This function is unnecessary for the prokaryotic cell, because its much smaller size means that all materials within the cell are relatively close together. Of course, prokaryotic cells do have DNA and DNA functions. Biologists describe the central region of the cell as its "nucleoid" (-oid=similar or imitating), because it's pretty much where the DNA is located. But note that the nucleoid is essentially an imaginary "structure." There is no physical boundary enclosing the nucleoid.
- Eukaryotic DNA is linear; prokaryotic DNA is circular (it has no ends).
- Eukaryotic DNA is complexed with proteins called "histones," and is organized into chromosomes; prokaryotic DNA is "naked," meaning that it has no histones associated with it, and it is not formed into chromosomes. Though many are sloppy about it, the term "chromosome" does not technically apply to anything in a prokaryotic cell. A eukaryotic cell contains a number of chromosomes; a prokaryotic cell contains only one circular DNA molecule and a varied assortment of much smaller circlets of DNA called "plasmids." The smaller, simpler prokaryotic cell requires far fewer genes to operate than the eukaryotic cell.
- Both cell types have many, many ribosomes, but the ribosomes of the eukaryotic cells are larger and more complex than those of the prokaryotic cell. Ribosomes are made out of a special class of RNA molecules (ribosomal RNA, or rRNA) and a specific collection of different proteins. A eukaryotic ribosome is composed of five kinds of rRNA and about eighty kinds of proteins. Prokaryotic ribosomes are composed of only three kinds of rRNA and about fifty kinds of protein.
- The cytoplasm of eukaryotic cells is filled with a large, complex collection of organelles, many of them enclosed in their own membranes; the prokaryotic cell contains no membrane-bound organelles which are independent of the plasma membrane. This is a very significant difference, and the source of the vast majority of the greater complexity of the eukaryotic cell. There is much more space within a eukaryotic cell than within a prokaryotic cell, and many of these structures, like the nucleus, increase the efficiency of functions by confining them within smaller spaces within the huge cell, or with communication and movement within the cell.