Reproduction in prokaryotes is primarily asexual and takes place by binary fission. Recall that the DNA of a prokaryote exists usually as a single, circular chromosome. Prokaryotes do not undergo mitosis. Rather, the chromosome loop is replicated, and the two resulting copies attached to the plasma membrane move apart as the cell grows in a process called binary fission. The prokaryote, now enlarged, is pinched inward at its equator, and the two resulting cells, which are clones, separate. Binary fission does not provide an opportunity for genetic recombination, but prokaryotes can alter their genetic makeup in three ways.
In a process called transformation, the cell takes in DNA found in its environment that is shed by other prokaryotes, alive or dead. A pathogen is an organism that causes a disease. If a nonpathogenic bacterium takes up DNA from a pathogen and incorporates the new DNA in its own chromosome, it too may become pathogenic. In transduction, bacteriophages, the viruses that infect bacteria, move DNA from one bacterium to another. Archaea have a different set of viruses that infect them and translocate genetic material from one individual to another. During conjugation, DNA is transferred from one prokaryote to another by means of a pilus that brings the organisms into contact with one another. The DNA transferred is usually a plasmid, but parts of the chromosome can also be moved.
Cycles of binary fission can be very rapid, on the order of minutes for some species. This short generation time coupled with mechanisms of genetic recombination result in the rapid evolution of prokaryotes, allowing them to respond to environmental changes (such as the introduction of an antibiotic) very quickly.
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