My direct experience with prokaryotes is sadly limited — while our entire lives and environment are profoundly shaped by the activity of bacteria, we rarely actually see the little guys. The closest I've come was some years ago, when I was doing work on grasshopper embryos, and sterile technique was a pressing concern. The work was done under a hood that we regularly hosed down with 95% alcohol, we'd extract embryos from their eggs, and we'd keep them alive for hours to days in tissue culture medium — a rich soup of nutrients that was also a ripe environment for bacterial growth. I was looking at the development of neurons, so I'd put the embryo under a high-powered lens of a microscope equipped with differential interference contrast optics, and the sheet of grasshopper neurons would look like a giant's causeway, a field of tightly packed rounded boulders. I was watching processes emerging and growing from the cells, so I needed good crisp optics and a specimen that would thrive healthily for a good long period of time.
It was a bad sign when bacteria would begin to grow in the embryo. They were visible like grains of rice among the ripe watermelons of the cells I was interested in, and when I spotted them I knew my viewing time was limited: they didn't obscure much directly, but soon enough the medium would be getting cloudy and worse, grasshopper hemocytes (their immune cells) would emerge and do their amoeboid oozing all over the field, engulfing the nasty bacteria but also obscuring my view.
What was striking, though, was the disparity in size. Prokaryotic bacteria are tiny, so small they nestled in the little nooks between the hopper cells; it was like the opening to Star Wars, with the tiny little rebel corvette dwarfed by the massive eukaryotic embryonic cells that loomed vastly in the microscope, like the imperial star destroyer that just kept coming and totally overbearing the smaller targets. And the totality of the embryo itself — that's no moon. It's a multicellular organism.
I had to wonder: why have eukaryotes grown so large relative to their prokaryotic cousins, and why haven't any prokaryotes followed the strategy of multicellularity to build even bigger assemblages? There is a pat answer, of course: it's because prokaryotes already have the most successful evolutionary strategy of them all and are busily being the best microorganisms they can be. Evolving into a worm would be a step down for them.
That answer doesn't work, though. Prokaryotes are the most numerous, most diverse, most widely successful organisms on the planet: in all those teeming swarms and multitudinous opportunities, none have exploited this path? I can understand that they'd be rare, but nonexistent? The only big multicellular organisms are all eukaryotic? Why?
Another issue is that it's not as if eukaryotes carry around fundamentally different processes: every key innovation that allowed multicellularity to occur was first pioneered in prokaryotes. Cell signaling? Prokaryotes have it. Gene regulation? Prokaryotes have that covered. Functional partitioning of specialized regions of the cell? Common in prokaryotes. Introns, exons, endocytosis, cytoskeletons…yep, prokaryotes had it first, eukaryotes have simply elaborated upon them. It's like finding a remote tribe that has mastered all the individual skills of carpentry — nails and hammers, screws and screwdrivers, saws and lumber — as well as plumbing and electricity, but no one has ever managed to bring all the skills together to build a house.
Nick Lane and William Martin have a hypothesis, and it's an interesting one that I hadn't considered before: it's the horsepower. Eukaryotes have a key innovation that permits the expansion of genome complexity, and it's the mitochondrion. Without that big powerplant, and most importantly, a dedicated control mechanism, prokaryotes can't afford to become more complex, so they've instead evolved to dominate the small, fast, efficient niche, leaving the eukaryotes to occupy the grandly inefficient, elaborate sloppy niche.
Lane and Martin make their case with numbers. What is the energy budget for cells? Somewhat surprisingly, even during periods of rapid growth, bacteria sink only about 20% of their metabolic activity into DNA replication; the costly process is protein synthesis, which eats up about 75% of the energy budget. It's not so much having a lot of genes in the genome that is expensive, it's translating those genes into useful protein products that costs. And if a bacterium with 4400 genes is spending that much making them work, it doesn't have a lot of latitude to expand the number of genes — double them and the cell goes bankrupt. Yet eukaryotic cells can have ten times that number of genes.
Another way to look at it is to calculate the metabolic output of the typical cell. A culture of bacteria may have a mean metabolic rate of 0.2 watts/gram; each cell is tiny, with a mass of 2.6 x 10-12g, which means each cell is producing about 0.5 picowatts. A eukaryotic protist has about the same power output per unit weight, 0.06 watts/gram, but each cell is so much larger, about 40,000 x 10-12g, that a single cell has about 2300 picowatts available to it. So, more energy!
Now the question is how that relates to genome size. If the prokaryote has a genome that's about 6 megabases long, that means it has about 0.08 picowatts/megabase to spare. If the eukaryote genome is 3,000 megabytes long, that translates into about 0.8 picowatts of power per megabase (that's a tenfold increase, but keep in mind that there is wide variation in size in both prokaryotes and eukaryotes, so the ranges overlap and we can't actually consider this a significant difference — they're in the same ballpark).
Now you should be thinking…this is just a consequence of scaling. Eukaryotic power production per gram isn't any better than what prokaryotes do, all they've done is made their cells bigger, and there's nothing to stop prokaryotes from growing large and doing the same thing. In fact, they do: the largest known bacterium, Thiomargarita, can reach a diameter of a half-millimeter. It gets more metabolic power in a similar way to how eukaryotes do it: we eukaryotes carry a population of mitochondria with convoluted membranes and a dedicated strand of DNA, all to produce energy, and the larger the cell, the more mitochondria are present. Thiomargarita doesn't have mitochondria, but it instead duplicates its own genome many times over, with 6,000-17,000 nucleoids distributed around the cell, each regulating its own patch of energy-producing membrane. It's functionally equivalent to the eukaryotic mitochondrial array then, right?
Wrong. There's a catch. Mitochondria have grossly stripped down genomes, carrying just a small cluster of genes essential for ATP production. One hypothesis for why this mitochondrial genome is maintained is that it acts as a local control module, rapidly responding to changes in the local membrane to regulate the structure. In Thiomargarita, in order to get this fine-tuned local control, the whole genome is replicated, dragging along all the baggage, and metabolic expense, of all of those non-metabolic genes.
Because it is amplifying the entire genomic package instead of just an essential metabolic subset, Thiomargarita's energy output per gene plummets in comparison. That difference is highlighted in this illustration which compares an 'average' prokaryote, Escherichia, to a giant prokaryote, Thiomargarita, to an 'average' eukaryotic protist, Euglena.
Notice that the prokaryotes are at no disadvantage in terms of raw power output; eukaryotes have not evolved bigger, better engines. Where they differ greatly is in the amount of power produced per gene or per genome. Eukaryotes are profligate in pouring energy into their genomes, which is how they can afford to be so disgracefully inefficient, with numerous genes with only subtle differences between them, and with large quantities of junk DNA (which is also not so costly anyway; remember, the bulk of the expense is in translating, not replicating, the genome, and junk DNA is mostly untranscribed).
So, what Lane and Martin argue is that the segregation of energy production into functional modules with an independent and minimal genetic control mechanism, mitochondria with mitochondrial DNA, was the essential precursor to the evolution of multicellular complexity — it's what gave the cell the energy surplus to expand the genome and explore large-scale innovation.
As they explain it…
Our considerations reveal why the exploration of protein sequence space en route to eukaryotic complexity required mitochondria. Without mitochondria, prokaryotes—even giant polyploids—cannot pay the energetic price of complexity; the lack of true intermediates in the prokaryote-to-eukaryote transition has a bioenergetic cause. The conversion from endosymbiont to mitochondrion provided a freely expandable surface area of internal bioenergetic membranes, serviced by thousands of tiny specialized genomes that permitted their host to evolve, explore and express massive numbers of new proteins in combinations and at levels energetically unattainable for its prokaryotic contemporaries. If evolution works like a tinkerer, evolution with mitochondria works like a corps of engineers.
That last word is unfortunate, because they really aren't saying that mitochondria engineer evolutionary change at all. What they are is permissive: they generate the extra energy that allows the nuclear genome the luxury of exploring a wider space of complexity and possible solutions to novel problems. Prokaryotes are all about efficiency and refinement, while eukaryotes are all about flamboyant experimentation by chance, not design.
Lane N, Martin W. (2010) The energetics of genome complexity. Nature 467(7318):929-34.