Skip to main content
Medicine LibreTexts

3.5A: The Nucleus and Ribosomes

  • Page ID
  • [ "article:topic" ]

    Found within eukaryotic cells, the nucleus contains the genetic material that determines the entire structure and function of that cell.




    Explain the purpose of the nucleus in eukaryotic cells



    Key Points


    • The nucleus contains the cell ‘s DNA and directs the synthesis of ribosomes and proteins.
    • Found within the nucleoplasm, the nucleolus is a condensed region of chromatin where ribosome synthesis occurs.
    • Chromatin consists of DNA wrapped around histone proteins and is stored within the nucleoplasm.
    • Ribosomes are large complexes of protein and ribonucleic acid (RNA) responsible for protein synthesis when DNA from the nucleus is transcribed.


    Key Terms


    • histone: any of various simple water-soluble proteins that are rich in the basic amino acids lysine and arginine and are complexed with DNA in the nucleosomes of eukaryotic chromatin
    • nucleolus: a conspicuous, rounded, non-membrane bound body within the nucleus of a cell
    • chromatin: a complex of DNA, RNA, and proteins within the cell nucleus out of which chromosomes condense during cell division


    The Nucleus


    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. 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.



    DNA is highly organized: This image shows various levels of the organization of chromatin (DNA and protein). Along the chromatin threads, unwound protein-chromosome complexes, we find DNA wrapped around a set of histone proteins.




    The nucleus stores the hereditary material of the cell: The nucleus is the control center of the cell. The nucleus of living cells contains the genetic material that determines the entire structure and function of that cell.


    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.



    Ribosomes are responsible for protein synthesis: Ribosomes are made up of a large subunit (top) and a small subunit (bottom). During protein synthesis, ribosomes assemble amino acids into proteins.


    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.