One of the main differences between prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells is the nucleus. As previously discussed, prokaryotic cells lack an organized nucleus while eukaryotic cells contain membrane-bound nuclei (and organelles) that house the cell’s DNA and direct the synthesis of ribosomes and proteins.
The nucleus stores chromatin (DNA plus proteins) in a gel-like substance called the nucleoplasm (Figure 1). To understand chromatin, it is helpful to first consider chromosomes. Chromatin describes the material that makes up chromosomes, which are structures within the nucleus that are made up of DNA, the hereditary material. You may remember that in prokaryotes, DNA is organized into a single circular chromosome. In eukaryotes, chromosomes are linear structures. Every eukaryotic species has a specific number of chromosomes in the nuclei of its body’s cells. For example, in humans, the chromosome number is 46, while in fruit flies, it is eight. Chromosomes are only visible and distinguishable from one another when the cell is getting ready to divide. In order to organize the large amount of DNA within the nucleus, proteins called histones are attached to chromosomes; the DNA is wrapped around these histones to form a structure resembling beads on a string. These protein-chromosome complexes are called chromatin (Figure 2).
The nucleoplasm is also where we find the nucleolus. The nucleolus is a condensed region of chromatin where ribosome synthesis occurs. Ribosomes, large complexes of protein and ribonucleic acid (RNA), are the cellular organelles responsible for protein synthesis. They receive their “orders” for protein synthesis from the nucleus where the DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA (mRNA). This mRNA travels to the ribosomes, which translate the code provided by the sequence of the nitrogenous bases in the mRNA into a specific order of amino acids in a protein (Figure 3).
Lastly, the boundary of the nucleus is called the nuclear envelope. It consists of two phospholipid bilayers: an outer membrane and an inner membrane. The nuclear membrane is continuous with the endoplasmic reticulum, while nuclear pores allow substances to enter and exit the nucleus.