22 Nucleus

Typically, the nucleus is the most prominent organelle in a cell. The nucleus (plural = nuclei) houses the cell’s DNA in the form of chromatin and directs the synthesis of ribosomes and proteins. Let us look at it in more detail (Figure1).

endomembrane system is shown in purple. A small dark circle shows the nucleolus inside a larger light purple circle (the nucleus). Outside the nucleus, squiggly purple sections of endoplasmic reticulum are covered with small red ribosomes.
Figure 1 The outermost boundary of the nucleus is the nuclear envelope. Notice that the nuclear envelope consists of two phospholipid bilayers (membranes)—an outer membrane and an inner membrane—in contrast to the plasma membrane, which consists of only one phospholipid bilayer. (credit: modification of work by NIGMS, NIH)

The nuclear envelope is a double-membrane structure that constitutes the outermost portion of the nucleus (Figure 2). Both the inner and outer membranes of the nuclear envelope are phospholipid bilayers.

Figure 2This illustration shows the double membrane structure surrounding the nucleus. Notice that both membranes are composed of a phospholipid bilayer. Credit Boumphreyfr; Wikimedia


The nuclear envelope is punctuated with pores that control the passage of ions, molecules, and RNA between the nucleoplasm and the cytoplasm (Figure 2). The nucleoplasm is the semi-solid fluid inside the nucleus, where we find the chromatin and the nucleolus.

You may remember that in prokaryotes, DNA is organized into a single circular chromosome. In eukaryotes, chromosomes are linear structures. In eukaryotes, chromosomes are structures within the nucleus that are made up of DNA, the hereditary material, and proteins. This combination of DNA and proteins is called chromatin.  Every species has a specific number of chromosomes in the nucleus of its body cells. For example, in humans, the chromosome number is 46, whereas in fruit flies, the chromosome number is eight.

linear chromosomes in differnet colors are shown in pairs (ex: two red linear chromosomes, two green linear chromosomes).
Figure 3This image shows paired chromosomes. Each pair of chromosomes is shown in a different color. In reality, chromosomes are not colorful and typically look grayish. (Credit: modification of work by NIH; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

Chromosomes are only visible and distinguishable from one another when the cell is getting ready to divide. When the cell is in the growth and maintenance phases of its life cycle, the chromosomes resemble an unwound, jumbled bunch of threads. These unwound protein-chromosome complexes are called chromatin (Figure 4); chromatin describes the material that makes up the chromosomes both when condensed and decondensed.

An X-shaped chromosome unravels into a purple line of chromatin. This untwists into double-helical DNA. A zoomed in section shows purple DNA wrapped around blue balls representing histones.
Figure 4 This image shows various levels of the organization of chromatin (DNA and protein).


We already know that the nucleus directs the synthesis of ribosomes, but how does it do this? Some chromosomes have sections of DNA that encode ribosomal RNA. A darkly staining area within the nucleus, called the nucleolus (plural = nucleoli) (See Figure 1), aggregates the ribosomal RNA with associated proteins to assemble the ribosomal subunits that are then transported through the nuclear pores into the cytoplasm.


Unless otherwise noted, images on this page are licensed under CC-BY 4.0 by OpenStax.

Text adapted from: OpenStax, Concepts of Biology. OpenStax CNX. May 18, 2016 http://cnx.org/contents/b3c1e1d2-839c-42b0-a314-e119a8aafbdd@9.10


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MHCC Biology 112: Biology for Health Professions Copyright © 2019 by Lisa Bartee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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