The ribosome is a large ribonucleoprotein (RNA-protein) complex, roughly 20 to 30 nanometers in diameter. It is formed from two unequally sized subunits, referred to as the small subunit and the large subunit. The two subunits of the ribosome must join together to become active in protein synthesis. However, they have distinguishable functions. The small subunit is involved in decoding the genetic information, while the large subunit has the catalytic activity responsible for peptide bond formation (that is, the joining of new amino acids to the growing protein chain).
In prokaryotes, the small subunit contains one RNA molecule and about twenty different proteins, while the large subunit contains two different RNAs and about thirty different proteins. Eukaryotic ribosomes are even more complex: the small subunit contains one RNA and over thirty proteins, while the large subunit is formed from three RNAs and about fifty proteins. Mitochondrial and chloroplast ribosomes are similar to prokaryotic ribosomes.
In spite of its complex composition, the architecture of the ribosome is very precise. Even more remarkable, ribosomes from all organisms, ranging from bacteria to humans, are very similar in their form and function. Recent breakthroughs in studies of ribosome structure, using techniques such as scanning, cryo-electron microscopy, and X-ray crystallography, have provided scientists with highly refined structures of this complex organelle. One particularly exciting conclusion from studies of the large subunit is that it is ribosomal RNA (rRNA), and not protein, that provides the catalytic activity for peptide bond formation. That is, it forms the chemical linkage between the amino acids of the growing protein molecule.