Ribosomes - The Protein Builders of a Cell

Ribosome: 3D Model
This is a 3D computer graphic model of a ribosome. Ribosomes are composed of protein and RNA. They consist of subunits that fit together and work as one to translate mRNA (messenger RNA) into a polypeptide chain during protein synthesis (translation). Credit: Callista Images/Cultura/Getty Images

There are two major types of cells: prokaryotic and eukaryotic cells. Ribosomes are cell organelles that consist of RNA and proteins. They are responsible for assembling the proteins of the cell. Depending on the protein production level of a particular cell, ribosomes may number in the millions.

Key Takeaways: Ribosomes

  • Ribosomes are cell organelles that function in protein synthesis. Ribosomes in plant and animals cells are larger than those found in bacteria.
  • Ribosomes are composed of RNA and proteins that form ribosome subunits: a large ribosome subunit and small subunit. These two subunits are produced in the nucleus and unite in the cytoplasm during protein synthesis.
  • Free ribosomes are found suspended in the cytosol, while bound ribosomes are attached to the endoplasmic reticulum.
  • Mitochondria and chloroplasts are capable of producing their own ribosomes.

Distinguishing Characteristics

Structure of a Ribosome. Interaction of a ribosome with mRNA.  ttsz/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Ribosomes are typically composed of two subunits: a large subunit and a small subunit. Eukarotic ribosomes (80S), such as those in plant cells and animal cells, are larger in size than prokaryotic ribosomes (70S), such as those in bacteria. Ribosomal subunits are synthesized in the nucleolus and cross over the nuclear membrane to the cytoplasm through nuclear pores.

Both ribosomal subunits join together when the ribosome attaches to messenger RNA (mRNA) during protein synthesis. Ribosomes along with another RNA molecule, transfer RNA (tRNA), help to translate the protein-coding genes in mRNA into proteins. Ribosomes link amino acids together to form polypeptide chains, which are further modified before becoming functional proteins.

Location in the Cell

Anatomy of animal cell
Ribosomes can be found attached to the endoplasmic reticulum or free within the cytoplasm.  ttsz/iStock/Getty Images Plus

There are two places where ribosomes commonly exist within a eukaryotic cell: suspended in the cytosol and bound to the endoplasmic reticulum. These ribosomes are called free ribosomes and bound ribosomes respectively. In both cases, the ribosomes usually form aggregates called polysomes or polyribosomes during protein synthesis. Polyribosomes are clusters of ribosomes that attach to a mRNA molecule during protein synthesis. This allows for multiple copies of a protein to be synthesized at once from a single mRNA molecule.

Free ribosomes usually make proteins that will function in the cytosol (fluid component of the cytoplasm), while bound ribosomes usually make proteins that are exported from the cell or included in the cell's membranes. Interestingly enough, free ribosomes and bound ribosomes are interchangeable and the cell can change their numbers according to metabolic needs.

Organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts in eukaryotic organisms have their own ribosomes. Ribosomes in these organelles are more like ribosomes found in bacteria with regard to size. The subunits comprising ribosomes in mitochondria and chloroplasts are smaller (30S to 50S) than the subunits of ribosomes found throughout the rest of the cell (40S to 60S).

Ribosomes and Protein Assembly

Ribosome and Protein Synthesis
Ribosomes interact with mRNA to produce proteins in a process called translation.  ttsz/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Protein synthesis occurs by the processes of transcription and translation. In transcription, the genetic code contained within DNA is transcribed into an RNA version of the code known as messenger RNA (mRNA). The mRNA transcript is transported from the nucleus to the cytoplasm where it undergoes translation. In translation, a growing amino acid chain, also called a polypeptide chain, is produced. Ribosomes help to translate mRNA by binding to the molecule and linking amino acids together to produce a polypeptide chain. The polypeptide chain eventually becomes a fully functioning protein. Proteins are very important biological polymers in our cells as they are involved in virtually all cell functions.

There are some differences between protein synthesis in eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Since eukaryotic ribosomes are larger than those in prokaryotes, they require more protein components. Other differences include different initiator amino acid sequences to start protein synthesis as well as different elongation and termination factors.

Eukaryotic Cell Structures

Animal Cell
This is a diagram of an animal cell. colematt/iStock/Getty Images Plus 

Ribosomes are only one type of cell organelle. The following cell structures can also be found in a typical animal eukaryotic cell:


  • Berg, Jeremy M. "Eukaryotic Protein Synthesis Differs from Prokaryotic Protein Synthesis Primarily in Translation Initiation." Biochemistry. 5th Edition., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2002, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK22531/#_ncbi_dlg_citbx_NBK22531.
  • Wilson, Daniel N, and Jamie H Doudna Cate. "The structure and function of the eukaryotic ribosome." Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology vol. 4,5 a011536. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a011536
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Bailey, Regina. "Ribosomes - The Protein Builders of a Cell." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/ribosomes-meaning-373363. Bailey, Regina. (2023, April 5). Ribosomes - The Protein Builders of a Cell. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/ribosomes-meaning-373363 Bailey, Regina. "Ribosomes - The Protein Builders of a Cell." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/ribosomes-meaning-373363 (accessed June 4, 2023).