Ribosomes are the cellular structures responsible for protein synthesis. When we view them through an electron microscope, ribosomes appear either as clusters (polyribosomes) or single, tiny dots that float freely in the cytoplasm. They may be attached to the plasma membrane's cytoplasmic side or the endoplasmic reticulum's cytoplasmic side and the nuclear envelope's outer membrane (Figure). Electron microscopy shows us that ribosomes, which are large protein and RNA complexes, consist of two subunits, large and small (Figure). Ribosomes receive their “orders” for protein synthesis from the nucleus where the DNA transcribes 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.
Because protein synthesis is an essential function of all cells (including enzymes, hormones, antibodies, pigments, structural components, and surface receptors), there are ribosomes in practically every cell. Ribosomes are particularly abundant in cells that synthesize large amounts of protein. For example, the pancreas is responsible for creating several digestive enzymes and the cells that produce these enzymes contain many ribosomes. Thus, we see another example of form following function.