The Cell Nucleus
The nucleus is a highly specialized organelle that serves as the information processing and administrative center of the cell. This organelle has two major functions: it stores the cell's hereditary material, or DNA, and it coordinates the cell's activities, which include growth, intermediary metabolism, protein synthesis, and reproduction (cell division).
Only the cells of advanced organisms, known as eukaryotes, have a nucleus. Generally there is only one nucleus per cell, but there are exceptions, such as the cells of slime molds and the Siphonales group of algae. Simpler one-celled organisms (prokaryotes), like the bacteria and cyanobacteria, don't have a nucleus. In these organisms, all of the cell's information and administrative functions are dispersed throughout the cytoplasm.
The spherical nucleus typically occupies about 10 percent of a eukaryotic cell's volume, making it one of the cell's most prominent features. A double-layered membrane, the nuclear envelope, separates the contents of the nucleus from the cellular cytoplasm. The envelope is riddled with holes called nuclear pores that allow specific types and sizes of molecules to pass back and forth between the nucleus and the cytoplasm. It is also attached to a network of tubules and sacs, called the endoplasmic reticulum, where protein synthesis occurs, and is usually studded with ribosomes (see Figure 1).
The semifluid matrix found inside the nucleus is called nucleoplasm. Within the nucleoplasm, most of the nuclear material consists of chromatin, the less condensed form of the cell's DNA that organizes to form chromosomes during mitosis or cell division. The nucleus also contains one or more nucleoli, organelles that synthesize protein-producing macromolecular assemblies called ribosomes, and a variety of other smaller components, such as Cajal bodies, GEMS (Gemini of coiled bodies), and interchromatin granule clusters.
Chromatin and Chromosomes - Packed inside the nucleus of every human cell is nearly 6 feet of DNA, which is divided into 46 individual molecules, one for each chromosome and each about 1.5 inches long. Packing all this material into a microscopic cell nucleus is an extraordinary feat of packaging. For DNA to function, it can't be crammed into the nucleus like a ball of string. Instead, it is combined with proteins and organized into a precise, compact structure, a dense string-like fiber called chromatin.
The Nucleolus - The nucleolus is a membrane-less organelle within the nucleus that manufactures ribosomes, the cell's protein-producing structures. Through the microscope, the nucleolus looks like a large dark spot within the nucleus. A nucleus may contain up to four nucleoli, but within each species the number of nucleoli is fixed. After a cell divides, a nucleolus is formed when chromosomes are brought together into nucleolar organizing regions. During cell division, the nucleolus disappears. Some studies suggest that the nucleolus may be involved with cellular aging and, therefore, may affect the senescence of an organism.
The Nuclear Envelope - The nuclear envelope is a double-layered membrane that encloses the contents of the nucleus during most of the cell's lifecycle. The space between the layers is called the perinuclear space and appears to connect with the rough endoplasmic reticulum. The envelope is perforated with tiny holes called nuclear pores. These pores regulate the passage of molecules between the nucleus and cytoplasm, permitting some to pass through the membrane, but not others. The inner surface has a protein lining called the nuclear lamina, which binds to chromatin and other nuclear components. During mitosis, or cell division, the nuclear envelope disintegrates, but reforms as the two cells complete their formation and the chromatin begins to unravel and disperse.
Nuclear Pores - The nuclear envelope is perforated with holes called nuclear pores. These pores regulate the passage of molecules between the nucleus and cytoplasm, permitting some to pass through the membrane, but not others. Building blocks for building DNA and RNA are allowed into the nucleus as well as molecules that provide the energy for constructing genetic material.
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