Ribosomes are the cellular structures responsible for protein synthesis. The word “synthesis” means “to combine things to produce something else.” In this context, protein synthesis means combining different amino acids together to form a protein. Ribosomes join amino acids together in a chain to form a protein (Figure 1). This amino acid chain then folds into a complex 3-dimensional structure. The shape of a protein is what gives the protein its specific function.
When viewed through an electron microscope, free ribosomes appear as either clusters or single tiny dots floating freely in the cytoplasm. Ribosomes may be attached to either the cytoplasmic side of the plasma membrane or the cytoplasmic side of the rough endoplasmic reticulum (Figure 2).
Because protein synthesis is essential for all cells, ribosomes are found in practically every cell, although they are smaller in prokaryotic cells. They are particularly abundant in immature red blood cells for the synthesis of hemoglobin, which functions in the transport of oxygen throughout the body. Electron microscopy has shown us that ribosomes, which are large complexes of protein and RNA, consist of two subunits, aptly called large and small (Figure 3). Ribosomes receive their “orders” for protein synthesis from the nucleus where the DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA (mRNA). The 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. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
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Text adapted from: OpenStax, Concepts of Biology. OpenStax CNX. May 18, 2016 http://email@example.com