The presence of a nucleus is the principal feature that distinguishes eukaryotic from prokaryotic cells. By housing the cell's genome, the nucleus serves both as the repository of genetic information and as the cell's control center. DNA replication, transcription, and RNA processing all take place within the nucleus, with only the final stage of gene expression (translation) localized to the cytoplasm.

By separating the genome from the cytoplasm, the nuclear envelope allows gene expression to be regulated by mechanisms that are unique to eukaryotes. Whereas prokaryotic mRNAs are translated while their transcription is still in process, eukaryotic mRNAs undergo several forms of posttranscriptional processing before being transported from the nucleus to the cytoplasm. The presence of a nucleus thus allows gene expression to be regulated by posttranscriptional mechanisms, such as alternative splicing. By limiting the access of selected proteins to the genetic material, the nuclear envelope also provides novel opportunities for the control of gene expression at the level of transcription. For example, the expression of some eukaryotic genes is controlled by the regulated transport of transcription factors from the cytoplasm to the nucleus-a form of transcriptional regulation unavailable to prokaryotes. Separation of the genome from the site of mRNA translation thus plays a central role in eukaryotic gene expression.