Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:

Describe the basic structure of a typical prokaryoteDescribe important differences in structure between Archaea and Bacteria

There are many differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. The name “prokaryote” suggests that prokaryotes are defined by exclusion—they are not eukaryotes, or organisms whose cells contain a nucleus and other internal membrane-bound organelles. However, all cells have four common structures: the plasma membrane, which functions as a barrier for the cell and separates the cell from its environment; the cytoplasm, a complex solution of organic molecules and salts inside the cell; a double-stranded DNA genome, the informational archive of the cell; and ribosomes, where protein synthesis takes place. Prokaryotes come in various shapes, but many fall into three categories: cocci (spherical), bacilli (rod-shaped), and spirilli (spiral-shaped) ((Figure)).

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Common prokaryotic cell types. Prokaryotes fall into three basic categories based on their shape, visualized here using scanning electron microscopy: (a) cocci, or spherical (a pair is shown); (b) bacilli, or rod-shaped; and (c) spirilli, or spiral-shaped. (credit a: modification of work by Janice Haney Carr, Dr. Richard Facklam, CDC; credit c: modification of work by Dr. David Cox; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

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Recall that prokaryotes are divided into two different domains, Bacteria and Archaea, which together with Eukarya, comprise the three domains of life ((Figure)).


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.

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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)
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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)
The Plasma Membrane of ProkaryotesThe prokaryotic plasma membrane is a thin lipid bilayer (6 to 8 nanometers) that completely surrounds the cell and separates the inside from the outside. Its selectively permeable nature keeps ions, proteins, and other molecules within the cell and prevents them from diffusing into the extracellular environment, while other molecules may move through the membrane. Recall that the general structure of a cell membrane is a phospholipid bilayer composed of two layers of lipid molecules. In archaeal cell membranes, isoprene (phytanyl) chains linked to glycerol replace the fatty acids linked to glycerol in bacterial membranes. Some archaeal membranes are lipid monolayers instead of bilayers ((Figure)).


Bacterial and archaeal phospholipids. Archaeal phospholipids differ from those found in Bacteria and Eukarya in two ways. First, they have branched phytanyl sidechains instead of linear ones. Second, an ether bond instead of an ester bond connects the lipid to the glycerol.
The Cell Wall of Prokaryotes

The cytoplasm of prokaryotic cells has a high concentration of dissolved solutes. Therefore, the osmotic pressure within the cell is relatively high. The cell wall is a protective layer that surrounds some cells and gives them shape and rigidity. It is located outside the cell membrane and prevents osmotic lysis (bursting due to increasing volume). The chemical composition of the cell wall varies between Archaea and Bacteria, and also varies between bacterial species.

Bacterial cell walls contain peptidoglycan, composed of polysaccharide chains that are cross-linked by unusual peptides containing both L- and D-amino acids including D-glutamic acid and D-alanine. (Proteins normally have only L-amino acids; as a consequence, many of our antibiotics work by mimicking D-amino acids and therefore have specific effects on bacterial cell-wall development.) There are more than 100 different forms of peptidoglycan. S-layer (surface layer) proteins are also present on the outside of cell walls of both Archaea and Bacteria.

Bacteria are divided into two major groups: Gram positive and Gram negative, based on their reaction to Gram staining. Note that all Gram-positive bacteria belong to one phylum; bacteria in the other phyla (Proteobacteria, Chlamydias, Spirochetes, Cyanobacteria, and others) are Gram-negative. The Gram staining method is named after its inventor, Danish scientist Hans Christian Gram (1853–1938). The different bacterial responses to the staining procedure are ultimately due to cell wall structure. Gram-positive organisms typically lack the outer membrane found in Gram-negative organisms ((Figure)). Up to 90 percent of the cell-wall in Gram-positive bacteria is composed of peptidoglycan, and most of the rest is composed of acidic substances called teichoic acids. Teichoic acids may be covalently linked to lipids in the plasma membrane to form lipoteichoic acids. Lipoteichoic acids anchor the cell wall to the cell membrane. Gram-negative bacteria have a relatively thin cell wall composed of a few layers of peptidoglycan (only 10 percent of the total cell wall), surrounded by an outer envelope containing lipopolysaccharides (LPS) and lipoproteins. This outer envelope is sometimes referred to as a second lipid bilayer. The chemistry of this outer envelope is very different, however, from that of the typical lipid bilayer that forms plasma membranes.


Cell walls in Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. Bacteria are divided into two major groups: Gram positive and Gram negative. Both groups have a cell wall composed of peptidoglycan: in Gram-positive bacteria, the wall is thick, whereas in Gram-negative bacteria, the wall is thin. In Gram-negative bacteria, the cell wall is surrounded by an outer membrane that contains lipopolysaccharides and lipoproteins. Porins are proteins in this cell membrane that allow substances to pass through the outer membrane of Gram-negative bacteria. In Gram-positive bacteria, lipoteichoic acid anchors the cell wall to the cell membrane. (credit: modification of work by “Franciscosp2″/Wikimedia Commons)
Which of the following statements is true?

Gram-positive bacteria have a single cell wall anchored to the cell membrane by lipoteichoic acid.Porins allow entry of substances into both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria.The cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria is thick, and the cell wall of Gram-positive bacteria is thin.Gram-negative bacteria have a cell wall made of peptidoglycan, whereas Gram-positive bacteria have a cell wall made of lipoteichoic acid.

A–>
Archaean cell walls do not have peptidoglycan. There are four different types of archaean cell walls. One type is composed of pseudopeptidoglycan, which is similar to peptidoglycan in morphology but contains different sugars in the polysaccharide chain. The other three types of cell walls are composed of polysaccharides, glycoproteins, or pure protein. Other differences between Bacteria and Archaea are seen in (Figure). Note that features related to DNA replication, transcription and translation in Archaea are similar to those seen in eukaryotes.

Differences and Similarities between Bacteria and ArchaeaStructural CharacteristicBacteriaArchaea
Cell typeProkaryoticProkaryotic
Cell morphologyVariableVariable
Cell wallContains peptidoglycanDoes not contain peptidoglycan
Cell membrane typeLipid bilayerLipid bilayer or lipid monolayer
Plasma membrane lipidsFatty acids-glycerol esterPhytanyl-glycerol ethers
ChromosomeTypically circularTypically circular
Replication originsSingleMultiple
RNA polymeraseSingleMultiple
Initiator tRNAFormyl-methionineMethionine
Streptomycin inhibitionSensitiveResistant
Calvin cycleYesNo

Reproduction

Reproduction in prokaryotes is asexual and usually takes place by binary fission. (Recall that the DNA of a prokaryote is a single, circular chromosome.) Prokaryotes do not undergo mitosis; instead, the chromosome is replicated and the two resulting copies separate from one another, due to the growth of the cell. The prokaryote, now enlarged, is pinched inward at its equator and the two resulting cells, which are clones, separate. Binary fission does not provide an opportunity for genetic recombination or genetic diversity, but prokaryotes can share genes by three other mechanisms.

In transformation, the prokaryote takes in DNA shed by other prokaryotes into its environment. If a nonpathogenic bacterium takes up DNA for a toxin gene from a pathogen and incorporates the new DNA into its own chromosome, it too may become pathogenic. In transduction, bacteriophages, the viruses that infect bacteria, may move short pieces of chromosomal DNA from one bacterium to another. Transduction results in a recombinant organism. Archaea also have viruses that may translocate genetic material from one individual to another. In conjugation, DNA is transferred from one prokaryote to another by means of a pilus, which brings the organisms into contact with one another, and provides a channel for transfer of DNA. The DNA transferred can be in the form of a plasmid or as a composite molecule, containing both plasmid and chromosomal DNA. These three processes of DNA exchange are shown in (Figure).

Reproduction can be very rapid: a few minutes for some species. This short generation time coupled with mechanisms of genetic recombination and high rates of mutation result in the rapid evolution of prokaryotes, allowing them to respond to environmental changes (such as the introduction of an antibiotic) very quickly.


Gene transfer mechanisms in prokaryotes. There are three mechanisms by which prokaryotes can exchange DNA. In (a) transformation, the cell takes up prokaryotic DNA directly from the environment. The DNA may remain separate as plasmid DNA or be incorporated into the host genome. In (b) transduction, a bacteriophage injects DNA into the cell that contains a small fragment of DNA from a different prokaryote. In (c) conjugation, DNA is transferred from one cell to another via a mating bridge, or pilus, that connects the two cells after the sex pilus draws the two bacteria close enough to form the bridge.
The Evolution of ProkaryotesHow do scientists answer questions about the evolution of prokaryotes? Unlike with animals, artifacts in the fossil record of prokaryotes offer very little information. Fossils of ancient prokaryotes look like tiny bubbles in rock. Some scientists turn to genetics and to the principle of the molecular clock, which holds that the more recently two species have diverged, the more similar their genes (and thus proteins) will be. Conversely, species that diverged long ago will have more genes that are dissimilar.

Scientists at the NASA Astrobiology Institute and at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory collaborated to analyze the molecular evolution of 32 specific proteins common to 72 species of prokaryotes.1 The model they derived from their data indicates that three important groups of bacteria—Actinobacteria, Deinococcus, and Cyanobacteria (collectively called Terrabacteria by the authors)—were the first to colonize land. Actinobacteria are a group of very common Gram-positive bacteria that produce branched structures like fungal mycelia, and include species important in decomposition of organic wastes. You will recall that Deinococcus is a genus of bacterium that is highly resistant to ionizing radiation. It has a thick peptidoglycan layer in addition to a second external membrane, so it has features of both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria.

Cyanobacteria are photosynthesizers, and were probably responsible for the production of oxygen on the ancient earth. The timelines of divergence suggest that bacteria (members of the domain Bacteria) diverged from common ancestral species between 2.5 and 3.2 billion years ago, whereas the Archaea diverged earlier: between 3.1 and 4.1 billion years ago. Eukarya later diverged from the archaean line. The work further suggests that stromatolites that formed prior to the advent of cyanobacteria (about 2.6 billion years ago) photosynthesized in an anoxic environment and that because of the modifications of the Terrabacteria for land (resistance to drying and the possession of compounds that protect the organism from excess light), photosynthesis using oxygen may be closely linked to adaptations to survive on land.


Section Summary

Prokaryotes (domains Archaea and Bacteria) are single-celled organisms that lack a nucleus. They have a single piece of circular DNA in the nucleoid area of the cell. Most prokaryotes have a cell wall that lies outside the boundary of the plasma membrane. Some prokaryotes may have additional structures such as a capsule, flagella, and pili. Bacteria and Archaea differ in the lipid composition of their cell membranes and the characteristics of the cell wall. In archaeal membranes, phytanyl units, rather than fatty acids, are linked to glycerol. Some archaeal membranes are lipid monolayers instead of bilayers.

The cell wall is located outside the cell membrane and prevents osmotic lysis. The chemical composition of cell walls varies between species. Bacterial cell walls contain peptidoglycan. Archaean cell walls do not have peptidoglycan, but they may have pseudopeptidoglycan, polysaccharides, glycoproteins, or protein-based cell walls. Bacteria can be divided into two major groups: Gram positive and Gram negative, based on the Gram stain reaction. Gram-positive organisms have a thick peptidoglycan layer fortified with teichoic acids. Gram-negative organisms have a thin cell wall and an outer envelope containing lipopolysaccharides and lipoproteins.

Prokaryotes can transfer DNA from one cell to another by three mechanisms: transformation (uptake of environmental DNA), transduction (transfer of genomic DNA via viruses), and conjugation (transfer of DNA by direct cell contact).


(Figure) Which of the following statements is true?

Gram-positive bacteria have a single cell wall anchored to the cell membrane by lipoteichoic acid.Porins allow entry of substances into both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria.The cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria is thick, and the cell wall of Gram-positive bacteria is thin.Gram-negative bacteria have a cell wall made of peptidoglycan, whereas Gram-positive bacteria have a cell wall made of lipoteichoic acid.

The presence of a membrane-enclosed nucleus is a characteristic of ________.

prokaryotic cellseukaryotic cellsall cellsviruses

Which of the following consist of prokaryotic cells?

bacteria and fungiarchaea and fungiprotists and animalsbacteria and archaea

The cell wall is ________.

interior to the cell membraneexterior to the cell membranea part of the cell membraneinterior or exterior, depending on the particular cell

B


Organisms most likely to be found in extreme environments are ________.

fungibacteriavirusesarchaea

B


Prokaryotes stain as Gram-positive or Gram-negative because of differences in the cell _______.

wallcytoplasmnucleuschromosome

Pseudopeptidoglycan is a characteristic of the walls of ________.

eukaryotic cellsbacterial prokaryotic cellsarchaean prokaryotic cellsbacterial and archaean prokaryotic cells

The lipopolysaccharide layer (LPS) is a characteristic of the wall of ________.

archaean cellsGram-negative bacteriabacterial prokaryotic cellseukaryotic cells

B


Critical Thinking Questions


Mention three differences between bacteria and archaea.


Responses will vary. A possible answer is: Bacteria contain peptidoglycan in the cell wall; archaea do not. The cell membrane in bacteria is a lipid bilayer; in archaea, it can be a lipid bilayer or a monolayer. Bacteria contain fatty acids on the cell membrane, whereas archaea contain phytanyl.


Explain the statement that both types, bacteria and archaea, have the same basic structures, but built from different chemical components.

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Both bacteria and archaea have cell membranes and they both contain a hydrophobic portion. In the case of bacteria, it is a fatty acid; in the case of archaea, it is a hydrocarbon (phytanyl). Both bacteria and archaea have a cell wall that protects them. In the case of bacteria, it is composed of peptidoglycan, whereas in the case of archaea, it is pseudopeptidoglycan, polysaccharides, glycoproteins, or pure protein. Bacterial and archaeal flagella also differ in their chemical structure.


A scientist isolates a new species of prokaryote. He notes that the specimen is a bacillus with a lipid bilayer and cell wall that stains positive for peptidoglycan. Its circular chromosome replicates from a single origin of replication. Is the specimen most likely an Archaea, a Gram-positive bacterium, or a Gram-negative bacterium? How do you know?


The specimen is most likely a gram-positive bacterium. Since the cell wall contains peptidoglycan and the chromosome has one origin of replication, we can conclude that the specimen is in the Domain Bacteria. Since the gram stain detects peptidoglycan, the prokaryote is a gram-positive bacterium.


Glossary

capsuleexternal structure that enables a prokaryote to attach to surfaces and protects it from dehydrationconjugationprocess by which prokaryotes move DNA from one individual to another using a pilusGram negativebacterium whose cell wall contains little peptidoglycan but has an outer membraneGram positivebacterium that contains mainly peptidoglycan in its cell wallspeptidoglycanmaterial composed of polysaccharide chains cross-linked to unusual peptidespilussurface appendage of some prokaryotes used for attachment to surfaces including other prokaryotespseudopeptidoglycancomponent of archaea cell walls that is similar to peptidoglycan in morphology but contains different sugarsS-layersurface-layer protein present on the outside of cell walls of archaea and bacteriateichoic acidpolymer associated with the cell wall of Gram-positive bacteriatransductionprocess by which a bacteriophage moves DNA from one prokaryote to anothertransformationprocess by which a prokaryote takes in DNA found in its environment that is shed by other prokaryotes