23.3: Groups of Protists - Biology

23.3: Groups of Protists - Biology

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Skills to Develop

  • Describe representative protist organisms from each of the six presently recognized supergroups of eukaryotes
  • Identify the evolutionary relationships of plants, animals, and fungi within the six presently recognized supergroups of eukaryotes

In the span of several decades, the Kingdom Protista has been disassembled because sequence analyses have revealed new genetic (and therefore evolutionary) relationships among these eukaryotes. Moreover, protists that exhibit similar morphological features may have evolved analogous structures because of similar selective pressures—rather than because of recent common ancestry. This phenomenon, called convergent evolution, is one reason why protist classification is so challenging. The emerging classification scheme groups the entire domain Eukaryota into six “supergroups” that contain all of the protists as well as animals, plants, and fungi that evolved from a common ancestor (Figure (PageIndex{1})). The supergroups are believed to be monophyletic, meaning that all organisms within each supergroup are believed to have evolved from a single common ancestor, and thus all members are most closely related to each other than to organisms outside that group. There is still evidence lacking for the monophyly of some groups.

The classification of eukaryotes is still in flux, and the six supergroups may be modified or replaced by a more appropriate hierarchy as genetic, morphological, and ecological data accumulate. Keep in mind that the classification scheme presented here is just one of several hypotheses, and the true evolutionary relationships are still to be determined. When learning about protists, it is helpful to focus less on the nomenclature and more on the commonalities and differences that define the groups themselves.


Many of the protist species classified into the supergroup Excavata are asymmetrical, single-celled organisms with a feeding groove “excavated” from one side. This supergroup includes heterotrophic predators, photosynthetic species, and parasites. Its subgroups are the diplomonads, parabasalids, and euglenozoans.


Among the Excavata are the diplomonads, which include the intestinal parasite, Giardia lamblia (Figure (PageIndex{2})). Until recently, these protists were believed to lack mitochondria. Mitochondrial remnant organelles, called mitosomes, have since been identified in diplomonads, but these mitosomes are essentially nonfunctional. Diplomonads exist in anaerobic environments and use alternative pathways, such as glycolysis, to generate energy. Each diplomonad cell has two identical nuclei and uses several flagella for locomotion.


A second Excavata subgroup, the parabasalids, also exhibits semi-functional mitochondria. In parabasalids, these structures function anaerobically and are called hydrogenosomes because they produce hydrogen gas as a byproduct. Parabasalids move with flagella and membrane rippling. Trichomonas vaginalis, a parabasalid that causes a sexually transmitted disease in humans, employs these mechanisms to transit through the male and female urogenital tracts. T. vaginalis causes trichamoniasis, which appears in an estimated 180 million cases worldwide each year. Whereas men rarely exhibit symptoms during an infection with this protist, infected women may become more susceptible to secondary infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and may be more likely to develop cervical cancer. Pregnant women infected with T. vaginalis are at an increased risk of serious complications, such as pre-term delivery.


Euglenozoans includes parasites, heterotrophs, autotrophs, and mixotrophs, ranging in size from 10 to 500 µm. Euglenoids move through their aquatic habitats using two long flagella that guide them toward light sources sensed by a primitive ocular organ called an eyespot. The familiar genus, Euglena, encompasses some mixotrophic species that display a photosynthetic capability only when light is present. In the dark, the chloroplasts of Euglena shrink up and temporarily cease functioning, and the cells instead take up organic nutrients from their environment.

The human parasite, Trypanosoma brucei, belongs to a different subgroup of Euglenozoa, the kinetoplastids. The kinetoplastid subgroup is named after the kinetoplast, a DNA mass carried within the single, oversized mitochondrion possessed by each of these cells. This subgroup includes several parasites, collectively called trypanosomes, which cause devastating human diseases and infect an insect species during a portion of their life cycle. T. brucei develops in the gut of the tsetse fly after the fly bites an infected human or other mammalian host. The parasite then travels to the insect salivary glands to be transmitted to another human or other mammal when the infected tsetse fly consumes another blood meal. T. brucei is common in central Africa and is the causative agent of African sleeping sickness, a disease associated with severe chronic fatigue, coma, and can be fatal if left untreated.

Current evidence suggests that species classified as chromalveolates are derived from a common ancestor that engulfed a photosynthetic red algal cell, which itself had already evolved chloroplasts from an endosymbiotic relationship with a photosynthetic prokaryote. Therefore, the ancestor of chromalveolates is believed to have resulted from a secondary endosymbiotic event. However, some chromalveolates appear to have lost red alga-derived plastid organelles or lack plastid genes altogether. Therefore, this supergroup should be considered a hypothesis-based working group that is subject to change. Chromalveolates include very important photosynthetic organisms, such as diatoms, brown algae, and significant disease agents in animals and plants. The chromalveolates can be subdivided into alveolates and stramenopiles.

Alveolates: Dinoflagellates, Apicomplexians, and Ciliates

A large body of data supports that the alveolates are derived from a shared common ancestor. The alveolates are named for the presence of an alveolus, or membrane-enclosed sac, beneath the cell membrane. The exact function of the alveolus is unknown, but it may be involved in osmoregulation. The alveolates are further categorized into some of the better-known protists: the dinoflagellates, the apicomplexans, and the ciliates.

Dinoflagellates exhibit extensive morphological diversity and can be photosynthetic, heterotrophic, or mixotrophic. Many dinoflagellates are encased in interlocking plates of cellulose. Two perpendicular flagella fit into the grooves between the cellulose plates, with one flagellum extending longitudinally and a second encircling the dinoflagellate (Figure (PageIndex{4})). Together, the flagella contribute to the characteristic spinning motion of dinoflagellates. These protists exist in freshwater and marine habitats, and are a component of plankton, the typically microscopic organisms that drift through the water and serve as a crucial food source for larger aquatic organisms.

Some dinoflagellates generate light, called bioluminescence, when they are jarred or stressed. Large numbers of marine dinoflagellates (billions or trillions of cells per wave) can emit light and cause an entire breaking wave to twinkle or take on a brilliant blue color (Figure (PageIndex{5})). For approximately 20 species of marine dinoflagellates, population explosions (also called blooms) during the summer months can tint the ocean with a muddy red color. This phenomenon is called a red tide, and it results from the abundant red pigments present in dinoflagellate plastids. In large quantities, these dinoflagellate species secrete an asphyxiating toxin that can kill fish, birds, and marine mammals. Red tides can be massively detrimental to commercial fisheries, and humans who consume these protists may become poisoned.

The apicomplexan protists are so named because their microtubules, fibrin, and vacuoles are asymmetrically distributed at one end of the cell in a structure called an apical complex (Figure (PageIndex{6})). The apical complex is specialized for entry and infection of host cells. Indeed, all apicomplexans are parasitic. This group includes the genus Plasmodium, which causes malaria in humans. Apicomplexan life cycles are complex, involving multiple hosts and stages of sexual and asexual reproduction.

The ciliates, which include Paramecium and Tetrahymena, are a group of protists 10 to 3,000 micrometers in length that are covered in rows, tufts, or spirals of tiny cilia. By beating their cilia synchronously or in waves, ciliates can coordinate directed movements and ingest food particles. Certain ciliates have fused cilia-based structures that function like paddles, funnels, or fins. Ciliates also are surrounded by a pellicle, providing protection without compromising agility. The genus Paramecium includes protists that have organized their cilia into a plate-like primitive mouth, called an oral groove, which is used to capture and digest bacteria (Figure (PageIndex{7})). Food captured in the oral groove enters a food vacuole, where it combines with digestive enzymes. Waste particles are expelled by an exocytic vesicle that fuses at a specific region on the cell membrane, called the anal pore. In addition to a vacuole-based digestive system, Paramecium also uses contractile vacuoles, which are osmoregulatory vesicles that fill with water as it enters the cell by osmosis and then contract to squeeze water from the cell.

Link to Learning

Watch the video of the contractile vacuole of Paramecium expelling water to keep the cell osmotically balanced.

Paramecium has two nuclei, a macronucleus and a micronucleus, in each cell. The micronucleus is essential for sexual reproduction, whereas the macronucleus directs asexual binary fission and all other biological functions. The process of sexual reproduction in Paramecium underscores the importance of the micronucleus to these protists. Paramecium and most other ciliates reproduce sexually by conjugation. This process begins when two different mating types of Paramecium make physical contact and join with a cytoplasmic bridge (Figure (PageIndex{8})). The diploid micronucleus in each cell then undergoes meiosis to produce four haploid micronuclei. Three of these degenerate in each cell, leaving one micronucleus that then undergoes mitosis, generating two haploid micronuclei. The cells each exchange one of these haploid nuclei and move away from each other. A similar process occurs in bacteria that have plasmids. Fusion of the haploid micronuclei generates a completely novel diploid pre-micronucleus in each conjugative cell. This pre-micronucleus undergoes three rounds of mitosis to produce eight copies, and the original macronucleus disintegrates. Four of the eight pre-micronuclei become full-fledged micronuclei, whereas the other four perform multiple rounds of DNA replication and go on to become new macronuclei. Two cell divisions then yield four new Paramecia from each original conjugative cell.

Art Connection


Which of the following statements about Paramecium sexual reproduction is false?

  1. The macronuclei are derived from micronuclei.
  2. Both mitosis and meiosis occur during sexual reproduction.
  3. The conjugate pair swaps macronucleii.
  4. Each parent produces four daughter cells.

Stramenopiles: Diatoms, Brown Algae, Golden Algae and Oomycetes

The other subgroup of chromalveolates, the stramenopiles, includes photosynthetic marine algae and heterotrophic protists. The unifying feature of this group is the presence of a textured, or “hairy,” flagellum. Many stramenopiles also have an additional flagellum that lacks hair-like projections (Figure (PageIndex{9})). Members of this subgroup range in size from single-celled diatoms to the massive and multicellular kelp.

The diatoms are unicellular photosynthetic protists that encase themselves in intricately patterned, glassy cell walls composed of silicon dioxide in a matrix of organic particles (Figure (PageIndex{10})). These protists are a component of freshwater and marine plankton. Most species of diatoms reproduce asexually, although some instances of sexual reproduction and sporulation also exist. Some diatoms exhibit a slit in their silica shell, called a raphe. By expelling a stream of mucopolysaccharides from the raphe, the diatom can attach to surfaces or propel itself in one direction.

During periods of nutrient availability, diatom populations bloom to numbers greater than can be consumed by aquatic organisms. The excess diatoms die and sink to the sea floor where they are not easily reached by saprobes that feed on dead organisms. As a result, the carbon dioxide that the diatoms had consumed and incorporated into their cells during photosynthesis is not returned to the atmosphere. In general, this process by which carbon is transported deep into the ocean is described as the biological carbon pump, because carbon is “pumped” to the ocean depths where it is inaccessible to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The biological carbon pump is a crucial component of the carbon cycle that maintains lower atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

Like diatoms, golden algae are largely unicellular, although some species can form large colonies. Their characteristic gold color results from their extensive use of carotenoids, a group of photosynthetic pigments that are generally yellow or orange in color. Golden algae are found in both freshwater and marine environments, where they form a major part of the plankton community.

The brown algae are primarily marine, multicellular organisms that are known colloquially as seaweeds. Giant kelps are a type of brown algae. Some brown algae have evolved specialized tissues that resemble terrestrial plants, with root-like holdfasts, stem-like stipes, and leaf-like blades that are capable of photosynthesis. The stipes of giant kelps are enormous, extending in some cases for 60 meters. A variety of algal life cycles exists, but the most complex is alternation of generations, in which both haploid and diploid stages involve multicellularity. Compare this life cycle to that of humans, for instance. Haploid gametes produced by meiosis (sperm and egg) combine in fertilization to generate a diploid zygote that undergoes many rounds of mitosis to produce a multicellular embryo and then a fetus. However, the individual sperm and egg themselves never become multicellular beings. Terrestrial plants also have evolved alternation of generations. In the brown algae genus Laminaria, haploid spores develop into multicellular gametophytes, which produce haploid gametes that combine to produce diploid organisms that then become multicellular organisms with a different structure from the haploid form (Figure (PageIndex{11})). Certain other organisms perform alternation of generations in which both the haploid and diploid forms look the same.

Art Connection


Which of the following statements about the Laminaria life cycle is false?

  1. 1n zoospores form in the sporangia.
  2. The sporophyte is the 2n plant.
  3. The gametophyte is diploid.
  4. Both the gametophyte and sporophyte stages are multicellular.

The water molds, oomycetes (“egg fungus”), were so-named based on their fungus-like morphology, but molecular data have shown that the water molds are not closely related to fungi. The oomycetes are characterized by a cellulose-based cell wall and an extensive network of filaments that allow for nutrient uptake. As diploid spores, many oomycetes have two oppositely directed flagella (one hairy and one smooth) for locomotion. The oomycetes are nonphotosynthetic and include many saprobes and parasites. The saprobes appear as white fluffy growths on dead organisms (FIgure (PageIndex{12})). Most oomycetes are aquatic, but some parasitize terrestrial plants. One plant pathogen is Phytophthora infestans, the causative agent of late blight of potatoes, such as occurred in the nineteenth century Irish potato famine.


The Rhizaria supergroup includes many of the amoebas, most of which have threadlike or needle-like pseudopodia (Figure (PageIndex{13})). Pseudopodia function to trap and engulf food particles and to direct movement in rhizarian protists. These pseudopods project outward from anywhere on the cell surface and can anchor to a substrate. The protist then transports its cytoplasm into the pseudopod, thereby moving the entire cell. This type of motion, called cytoplasmic streaming, is used by several diverse groups of protists as a means of locomotion or as a method to distribute nutrients and oxygen.

Link to Learning

Take a look at this video to see cytoplasmic streaming in a green alga.


Foraminiferans, or forams, are unicellular heterotrophic protists, ranging from approximately 20 micrometers to several centimeters in length, and occasionally resembling tiny snails (Figure (PageIndex{14})). As a group, the forams exhibit porous shells, called tests that are built from various organic materials and typically hardened with calcium carbonate. The tests may house photosynthetic algae, which the forams can harvest for nutrition. Foram pseudopodia extend through the pores and allow the forams to move, feed, and gather additional building materials. Typically, forams are associated with sand or other particles in marine or freshwater habitats. Foraminiferans are also useful as indicators of pollution and changes in global weather patterns.


A second subtype of Rhizaria, the radiolarians, exhibit intricate exteriors of glassy silica with radial or bilateral symmetry (Figure (PageIndex{15})). Needle-like pseudopods supported by microtubules radiate outward from the cell bodies of these protists and function to catch food particles. The shells of dead radiolarians sink to the ocean floor, where they may accumulate in 100 meter-thick depths. Preserved, sedimented radiolarians are very common in the fossil record.


Red algae and green algae are included in the supergroup Archaeplastida. It was from a common ancestor of these protists that the land plants evolved, since their closest relatives are found in this group. Molecular evidence supports that all Archaeplastida are descendents of an endosymbiotic relationship between a heterotrophic protist and a cyanobacterium. The red and green algae include unicellular, multicellular, and colonial forms.

Red Algae

Red algae, or rhodophytes, are primarily multicellular, lack flagella, and range in size from microscopic, unicellular protists to large, multicellular forms grouped into the informal seaweed category. The red algae life cycle is an alternation of generations. Some species of red algae contain phycoerythrins, photosynthetic accessory pigments that are red in color and outcompete the green tint of chlorophyll, making these species appear as varying shades of red. Other protists classified as red algae lack phycoerythrins and are parasites. Red algae are common in tropical waters where they have been detected at depths of 260 meters. Other red algae exist in terrestrial or freshwater environments.

Green Algae: Chlorophytes and Charophytes

The most abundant group of algae is the green algae. The green algae exhibit similar features to the land plants, particularly in terms of chloroplast structure. That this group of protists shared a relatively recent common ancestor with land plants is well supported. The green algae are subdivided into the chlorophytes and the charophytes. The charophytes are the closest living relatives to land plants and resemble them in morphology and reproductive strategies. Charophytes are common in wet habitats, and their presence often signals a healthy ecosystem.

The chlorophytes exhibit great diversity of form and function. Chlorophytes primarily inhabit freshwater and damp soil, and are a common component of plankton. Chlamydomonas is a simple, unicellular chlorophyte with a pear-shaped morphology and two opposing, anterior flagella that guide this protist toward light sensed by its eyespot. More complex chlorophyte species exhibit haploid gametes and spores that resemble Chlamydomonas.

The chlorophyte Volvox is one of only a few examples of a colonial organism, which behaves in some ways like a collection of individual cells, but in other ways like the specialized cells of a multicellular organism (Figure (PageIndex{16})). Volvox colonies contain 500 to 60,000 cells, each with two flagella, contained within a hollow, spherical matrix composed of a gelatinous glycoprotein secretion. Individual Volvox cells move in a coordinated fashion and are interconnected by cytoplasmic bridges. Only a few of the cells reproduce to create daughter colonies, an example of basic cell specialization in this organism.

True multicellular organisms, such as the sea lettuce, Ulva, are represented among the chlorophytes. In addition, some chlorophytes exist as large, multinucleate, single cells. Species in the genus Caulerpa exhibit flattened fern-like foliage and can reach lengths of 3 meters (Figure (PageIndex{17})). Caulerpa species undergo nuclear division, but their cells do not complete cytokinesis, remaining instead as massive and elaborate single cells.


The amoebozoans characteristically exhibit pseudopodia that extend like tubes or flat lobes, rather than the hair-like pseudopodia of rhizarian amoeba (Figure (PageIndex{18})). The Amoebozoa include several groups of unicellular amoeba-like organisms that are free-living or parasites.

Slime Molds

A subset of the amoebozoans, the slime molds, has several morphological similarities to fungi that are thought to be the result of convergent evolution. For instance, during times of stress, some slime molds develop into spore-generating fruiting bodies, much like fungi.

The slime molds are categorized on the basis of their life cycles into plasmodial or cellular types. Plasmodial slime molds are composed of large, multinucleate cells and move along surfaces like an amorphous blob of slime during their feeding stage (Figure (PageIndex{19})). Food particles are lifted and engulfed into the slime mold as it glides along. Upon maturation, the plasmodium takes on a net-like appearance with the ability to form fruiting bodies, or sporangia, during times of stress. Haploid spores are produced by meiosis within the sporangia, and spores can be disseminated through the air or water to potentially land in more favorable environments. If this occurs, the spores germinate to form ameboid or flagellate haploid cells that can combine with each other and produce a diploid zygotic slime mold to complete the life cycle.

The cellular slime molds function as independent amoeboid cells when nutrients are abundant (Figure (PageIndex{20})). When food is depleted, cellular slime molds pile onto each other into a mass of cells that behaves as a single unit, called a slug. Some cells in the slug contribute to a 2–3-millimeter stalk, drying up and dying in the process. Cells atop the stalk form an asexual fruiting body that contains haploid spores. As with plasmodial slime molds, the spores are disseminated and can germinate if they land in a moist environment. One representative genus of the cellular slime molds is Dictyostelium, which commonly exists in the damp soil of forests.

Link to Learning

View this site to see the formation of a fruiting body by a cellular slime mold.


The opisthokonts include the animal-like choanoflagellates, which are believed to resemble the common ancestor of sponges and, in fact, all animals. Choanoflagellates include unicellular and colonial forms, and number about 244 described species. These organisms exhibit a single, apical flagellum that is surrounded by a contractile collar composed of microvilli. The collar uses a similar mechanism to sponges to filter out bacteria for ingestion by the protist. The morphology of choanoflagellates was recognized early on as resembling the collar cells of sponges, and suggesting a possible relationship to animals.

The Mesomycetozoa form a small group of parasites, primarily of fish, and at least one form that can parasitize humans. Their life cycles are poorly understood. These organisms are of special interest, because they appear to be so closely related to animals. In the past, they were grouped with fungi and other protists based on their morphology.


The process of classifying protists into meaningful groups is ongoing, but genetic data in the past 20 years have clarified many relationships that were previously unclear or mistaken. The majority view at present is to order all eukaryotes into six supergroups: Excavata, Chromalveolata, Rhizaria, Archaeplastida, Amoebozoa, and Opisthokonta. The goal of this classification scheme is to create clusters of species that all are derived from a common ancestor. At present, the monophyly of some of the supergroups are better supported by genetic data than others. Although tremendous variation exists within the supergroups, commonalities at the morphological, physiological, and ecological levels can be identified.

Art Connections

[link] Which of the following statements about Paramecium sexual reproduction is false?

  1. The macronuclei are derived from micronuclei.
  2. Both mitosis and meiosis occur during sexual reproduction.
  3. The conjugate pair swaps macronuclei.
  4. Each parent produces four daughter cells.

[link] C

[link] Which of the following statements about the Laminaria life cycle is false?

  1. 1n zoospores form in the sporangia.
  2. The sporophyte is the 2n plant.
  3. The gametophyte is diploid.
  4. Both the gametophyte and sporophyte stages are multicellular.

[link] C

Review Questions

Which protist group exhibits mitochondrial remnants with reduced functionality?

  1. slime molds
  2. diatoms
  3. parabasalids
  4. dinoflagellates


Conjugation between two Paramecia produces ________ total daughter cells.

  1. 2
  2. 4
  3. 8
  4. 16


What is the function of the raphe in diatoms?

  1. locomotion
  2. defense
  3. capturing food
  4. photosynthesis


What genus of protists appears to contradict the statement that unicellularity restricts cell size?

  1. Dictyostelium
  2. Ulva
  3. Plasmodium
  4. Caulerpa


Free Response

The chlorophyte (green algae) genera Ulva and Caulerpa both have macroscopic leaf-like and stem-like structures, but only Ulva species are considered truly multicellular. Explain why.

Unlike Ulva, protists in the genus Caulerpa actually are large, multinucleate, single cells. Because these organisms undergo mitosis without cytokinesis and lack cytoplasmic divisions, they cannot be considered truly multicellular.

Why might a light-sensing eyespot be ineffective for an obligate saprobe? Suggest an alternative organ for a saprobic protist.

By definition, an obligate saprobe lacks the ability to perform photosynthesis, so it cannot directly obtain nutrition by searching for light. Instead, a chemotactic mechanism that senses the odors released during decay might be a more effective sensing organ for a saprobe.


biological carbon pump
process by which inorganic carbon is fixed by photosynthetic species that then die and fall to the sea floor where they cannot be reached by saprobes and their carbon dioxide consumption cannot be returned to the atmosphere
generation and emission of light by an organism, as in dinoflagellates
contractile vacuole
vesicle that fills with water (as it enters the cell by osmosis) and then contracts to squeeze water from the cell; an osmoregulatory vesicle
cytoplasmic streaming
movement of cytoplasm into an extended pseudopod such that the entire cell is transported to the site of the pseudopod
organelle carried by parabasalids (Excavata) that functions anaerobically and outputs hydrogen gas as a byproduct; likely evolved from mitochondria
mass of DNA carried within the single, oversized mitochondrion, characteristic of kinetoplastids (phylum: Euglenozoa)
nonfunctional organelle carried in the cells of diplomonads (Excavata) that likely evolved from a mitochondrion
diverse group of mostly microscopic organisms that drift in marine and freshwater systems and serve as a food source for larger aquatic organisms
slit in the silica shell of diatoms through which the protist secretes a stream of mucopolysaccharides for locomotion and attachment to substrates
porous shell of a foram that is built from various organic materials and typically hardened with calcium carbonate


Humans have been familiar with macroscopic organisms (organisms big enough to see with the unaided eye) since before there was a written history, and it is likely that most cultures distinguished between animals and land plants, and most probably included the macroscopic fungi as plants. Therefore, it became an interesting challenge to deal with the world of microorganisms once microscopes were developed a few centuries ago. Many different naming schemes were used over the last couple of centuries, but it has become the most common practice to refer to eukaryotes that are not land plants, animals, or fungi as protists.

This name was first suggested by Ernst Haeckel in the late nineteenth century. It has been applied in many contexts and has been formally used to represent a kingdom-level taxon called Protista. However, many modern systematists (biologists who study the relationships among organisms) are beginning to shy away from the idea of formal ranks such as kingdom and phylum. Instead, they are naming taxa as groups of organisms thought to include all the descendants of a last common ancestor (monophyletic group). During the past two decades, the field of molecular genetics has demonstrated that some protists are more related to animals, plants, or fungi than they are to other protists. Therefore, not including animals, plants, and fungi make the kingdom Protista a paraphyletic group, or one that does not include all descendents of its common ancestor. For this reason, protist lineages originally classified into the kingdom Protista continue to be examined and debated. In the meantime, the term “protist” still is used informally to describe this tremendously diverse group of eukaryotes.

Most protists are microscopic, unicellular organisms that are abundant in soil, freshwater, brackish, and marine environments. They are also common in the digestive tracts of animals and in the vascular tissues of plants. Others invade the cells of other protists, animals, and plants. Not all protists are microscopic. Some have huge, macroscopic cells, such as the plasmodia (giant amoebae) of myxomycete slime molds or the marine green alga Caulerpa, which can have single cells that can be several meters in size. Some protists are multicellular, such as the red, green, and brown seaweeds. It is among the protists that one finds the wealth of ways that organisms can grow.

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book is Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 and you must attribute OpenStax.

    If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:

  • Use the information below to generate a citation. We recommend using a citation tool such as this one.
    • Authors: Mary Ann Clark, Matthew Douglas, Jung Choi
    • Publisher/website: OpenStax
    • Book title: Biology 2e
    • Publication date: Mar 28, 2018
    • Location: Houston, Texas
    • Book URL:
    • Section URL:

    © Jan 7, 2021 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 license. The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.

    23.3: Groups of Protists - Biology

    All of the plant &ndash like protists called as algae. Algae is a term that can be used to refer to almost all chlorophyll&ndashbearing organisms found living in water. Many of the various algae are members of the protist kingdom, while others are members of the plant kingdom.

    There are three main groups of photosynthetic protists. They are the euglenophytes, the chrysophytes and the pyrrophytes. The euglenophytes include euglenoids such as Euglena. The chrysophytes include diatoms and golden algae. The pyrrophytes include the dinoflagellates.

    Importance of plant &ndash like protists: All the photosynthetic protists account for over 80 per cent of the carbon dioxide fixed in the biosphere. The plant&ndashlike protists are abundantly found in both fresh water and sea water. As photosynthetic organisms, the plant&ndashlike protists use light and simple inorganic materials to make their food and to produce oxygen. These plant&ndashlike protists along with other kinds of algae maintain over half of the earth&aposs oxygen supply. They are the most important primary producers. The primary producers make the main source of food&ndasheither directly or indirectly&ndashfor all animals of the sea and shore. Nevertheless, they are so important the earth would be unable to support life without them.


    The Opisthokonts are named for the single posterior flagellum seen in flagellated cells of the group. The flagella of other protists are anterior and their movement pulls the cells along, while the opisthokonts are pushed. Protist members of the opisthokonts include the animal-like choanoflagellates, which are believed to resemble the common ancestor of sponges and perhaps, all animals. Choanoflagellates include unicellular and colonial forms (Figure), and number about 244 described species. In these organisms, the single, apical flagellum is surrounded by a contractile collar composed of microvilli. The collar is used to filter and collect bacteria for ingestion by the protist. A similar feeding mechanism is seen in the collar cells of sponges, which suggests a possible connection between choanoflagellates and animals.

    The Mesomycetozoa form a small group of parasites, primarily of fish, and at least one form that can parasitize humans. Their life cycles are poorly understood. These organisms are of special interest, because they appear to be so closely related to animals. In the past, they were grouped with fungi and other protists based on their morphology.

    A Colonial Choanoflagellate. (credit: By Dhzanette ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

    Features unique to protists

    Protists vary greatly in organization. Some are single-celled others are syncytial (coenocytic essentially a mass of cytoplasm) and still others are multicellular. (While protists may show multicellularity, they are never multitissued.) They may manifest as filaments, colonies, or coenobia (a type of colony with a fixed number of interconnected cells embedded in a common matrix before release from the parental colony). Not all protists are microscopic. Some groups have large species indeed for example, among the brown algal protists some forms may reach a length of 60 metres (197 feet) or more. A common range in body length, however, is 5 μm (0.0002 inch) to 2 or 3 mm (0.08 or 0.1 inch) some parasitic forms (e.g., the malarial organisms) and a few free-living algal protists may have a diameter, or length, of only 1 μm.

    While many protists are capable of motility, primarily by means of flagella, cilia, or pseudopodia, others may be nonmotile for most or part of the life cycle. Resting stages (spores or cysts) are common among many species, and modes of nutrition include photosynthesis, absorption, and ingestion. Some species exhibit both autotrophic and heterotrophic nutrition. The great diversity of protist characteristics supports theories about the antiquity of the protists and of the ancestral role they play with respect to other eukaryotes.

    Among the Excavata are the diplomonads, which include the intestinal parasite, Giardia lamblia ( [link] ). Until recently, these protists were believed to lack mitochondria. Mitochondrial remnant organelles, called mitosomes , have since been identified in diplomonads, but these mitosomes are essentially nonfunctional. Diplomonads exist in anaerobic environments and use alternative pathways, such as glycolysis, to generate energy. Each diplomonad cell has two identical nuclei and uses several flagella for locomotion.

    The mammalian intestinal parasite Giardia lamblia , visualized here using scanning electron microscopy, is a waterborne protist that causes severe diarrhea when ingested. (credit: modification of work by Janice Carr, CDC scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

    119 Ecology of Protists

    By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:

    • Describe the role that protists play in the ecosystem
    • Describe important pathogenic species of protists

    Protists function in various ecological niches. Whereas some protist species are essential components of the food chain and generators of biomass, others function in the decomposition of organic materials. Still other protists are dangerous human pathogens or causative agents of devastating plant diseases.

    Primary Producers/Food Sources

    Protists are essential sources of food and provide nutrition for many other organisms. In some cases, as with zooplankton, protists are consumed directly. Alternatively, photosynthetic protists serve as producers of nutrition for other organisms. Paramecium bursaria and several other species of ciliates are mixotrophic due to a symbiotic relationship with green algae. This is a temporary version of the secondarily endosymbiotic chloroplast found in Euglena. But these symbiotic associations are not restricted to protists. For instance, photosynthetic dinoflagellates called zooxanthellae provide nutrients for the coral polyps ((Figure)) that house them, giving corals a boost of energy to secrete their calcium carbonate skeleton. In turn, the corals provide the protist with a protected environment and the compounds needed for photosynthesis. This type of symbiotic relationship is important in nutrient-poor environments. Without dinoflagellate symbionts, corals lose algal pigments in a process called coral bleaching, and they eventually die. This explains why reef-building corals typically do not reside in waters deeper than 20 meters: insufficient light reaches those depths for dinoflagellates to photosynthesize.

    The protists and their products of photosynthesis are essential—directly or indirectly—to the survival of organisms ranging from bacteria to mammals ((Figure)). As primary producers, protists feed a large proportion of the world’s aquatic species. (On land, terrestrial plants serve as primary producers.) In fact, approximately 25 percent of the world’s photosynthesis is conducted by photosynthetic protists, particularly dinoflagellates, diatoms, and multicellular algae.

    Protists do not create food sources only for sea-dwelling organisms. Recall that certain anaerobic parabasalid species exist in the digestive tracts of termites and wood-eating cockroaches, where they contribute an essential step in the digestion of cellulose ingested by these insects as they consume wood.

    Human Pathogens

    As we have seen, a pathogen is anything that causes disease. Parasitic organisms live in or on a host organism and harm the organism. A small number of protists are serious pathogenic parasites that must infect other organisms to survive and propagate. For example, protist parasites include the causative agents of malaria, African sleeping sickness, amoebic encephalitis, and waterborne gastroenteritis in humans. Other protist pathogens prey on plants, effecting massive destruction of food crops.

    Plasmodium Species

    In 2015 WHO reported over 200 million cases of malaria, mostly in Africa, South America, and southern Asia. However, it is not well known that malaria was also a prevalent and debilitating disease of the North Central region of the United States, particularly Michigan, with its thousands of lakes and numerous swamps. Prior to the civil war, and the drainage of many swamps, virtually everyone who immigrated to Michigan picked up malaria (ague as it was called in the late 1800s), and the pale, sallow, bloated faces of that period were the rule. The only healthy faces were worn by those immigrants who had just arrived. In fact, there were more deaths due to malaria in Michigan than those from the Civil War.

    We now know that malaria is caused by several species of the apicomplexan protist genus Plasmodium. Members of Plasmodium must sequentially require both a mosquito and a vertebrate to complete their life cycle. In vertebrates, the parasite develops in liver cells (the exoerythrocytic stage) and goes on to infect red blood cells (the erythrocytic stage), bursting from and destroying the blood cells with each asexual replication cycle ((Figure)). Of the four Plasmodium species known to infect humans, P. falciparum accounts for 50 percent of all malaria cases and is the primary (and deadliest) cause of disease-related fatalities in tropical regions of the world. In 2015, it was estimated that malaria caused over 400,000 deaths, mostly in African children. During the course of malaria, P. falciparum can infect and destroy more than one-half of a human’s circulating blood cells, leading to severe anemia. In response to waste products released as the parasites burst from infected blood cells, the host immune system mounts a massive inflammatory response with episodes of delirium-inducing fever (paroxysms) as parasites lyse red blood cells, spilling parasite waste into the bloodstream. P. falciparum is transmitted to humans by the African mosquito, Anopheles gambiae. Techniques to kill, sterilize, or avoid exposure to this highly aggressive mosquito species are crucial to malaria control. Ironically, a type of genetic control has arisen in parts of the world where malaria is endemic. Possession of one copy of the HbS beta globin allele results in malaria resistance. Unfortunately, this allele also has an unfortunate second effect when homozygous it causes sickle cell disease.

    This movie depicts the pathogenesis of Plasmodium falciparum, the causative agent of malaria.


    Trypanosoma brucei ((Figure)), transmitted by tsetse flies (Glossina spp) in Africa, and related flies in South America, is an flagellated endoparasite responsible for the deadly disease nagana in cattle and horses, and for African sleeping sickness in humans. This trypanosome confounds the human immune system by changing its thick layer of surface glycoproteins with each infectious cycle. (The glycoproteins are identified by the immune system as foreign antigens, and a specific antibody defense is mounted against the parasite.) However, T. brucei has thousands of possible antigens, and with each subsequent generation, the protist switches to a glycoprotein coating with a different molecular structure. In this way, T. brucei is capable of replicating continuously without the immune system ever succeeding in clearing the parasite. Without treatment, T. brucei attacks red blood cells, causing the patient to lapse into a coma and eventually die. During epidemic periods, mortality from the disease can be high. Greater surveillance and control measures lead to a reduction in reported cases some of the lowest numbers reported in 50 years (fewer than 10,000 cases in all of sub-Saharan Africa) have happened since 2009.

    This movie discusses the pathogenesis of Trypanosoma brucei, the causative agent of African sleeping sickness.

    In Latin America, another species of trypanosome, T. cruzi, is responsible for Chagas disease. T. cruzi infections are mainly caused by a blood-sucking “kissing bug” in the genus Triatoma. These “true bugs” bite the host during the night and then defecate on the wound, transmitting the trypanosome to the victim. The victim scratches the wound, further inoculating the site with trypanosomes at the location of the bite. After about 10 weeks, individuals enter the chronic phase but most never develop further symptoms. In about 30 percent of cases, however, the trypanosome causes further damage, especially to the heart and digestive system tissues in the chronic phase of infection, leading to malnutrition and heart failure due to abnormal heart rhythms. An estimated 10 million people are infected with Chagas disease, and it caused 10,000 deaths in 2008.

    Plant Parasites

    Protist parasites of terrestrial plants include agents that destroy food crops. The oomycete Plasmopara viticola parasitizes grape plants, causing a disease called downy mildew ((Figure)). Grape plants infected with P. viticola appear stunted and have discolored, withered leaves. The spread of downy mildew nearly collapsed the French wine industry in the nineteenth century.

    Phytophthora infestans is an oomycete responsible for potato late blight, which causes potato stalks and stems to decay into black slime ((Figure)). Widespread potato blight caused by P. infestans precipitated the well-known Irish potato famine in the nineteenth century that claimed the lives of approximately 1 million people and led to the emigration of at least 1 million more from Ireland. Late blight continues to plague potato crops in certain parts of the United States and Russia, wiping out as much as 70 percent of crops when no pesticides are applied.

    Protist Decomposers

    The fungus-like protist saprobes are specialized to absorb nutrients from nonliving organic matter, such as dead organisms or their wastes. For instance, many types of oomycetes grow on dead animals or algae. Saprobic protists have the essential function of returning inorganic nutrients to the soil and water. This process allows for new plant growth, which in turn generates sustenance for other organisms along the food chain. Indeed, without saprobe species, such as protists, fungi, and bacteria, life would cease to exist as all organic carbon became “tied up” in dead organisms.

    Section Summary

    Protists function at several levels of the ecological food web: as primary producers, as direct food sources, and as decomposers. In addition, many protists are parasites of plants and animals and can cause deadly human diseases or destroy valuable crops.

    Review Questions

    An example of carbon fixation is _____________.

    Which parasitic protist evades the host immune system by altering its surface proteins with each generation?

    1. Paramecium caudatum
    2. Trypanosoma brucei
    3. Plasmodium falciparum
    4. Phytophthora infestans

    Which of the following is not a way that protists contribute to the food web?

    1. They fix carbon into organic molecules.
    2. They occupy the apex producer niche.
    3. They enter symbiotic relationships with animals.
    4. They recycle nutrients back into the carbon and nitrogen cycles.

    Critical Thinking Questions

    How does killing Anopheles mosquitoes affect the Plasmodium protists?

    Plasmodium parasites infect humans and cause malaria. However, they must complete part of their life cycle within Anopheles mosquitoes, and they can only infect humans via the bite wound of a mosquito. If the mosquito population is decreased, then fewer Plasmodium would be able to develop and infect humans, thereby reducing the incidence of human infections with this parasite.

    Without treatment, why does African sleeping sickness invariably lead to death?

    The trypanosomes that cause this disease are capable of expressing a glycoprotein coat with a different molecular structure with each generation. Because the immune system must respond to specific antigens to raise a meaningful defense, the changing nature of trypanosome antigens prevents the immune system from ever clearing this infection. Massive trypanosome infection eventually leads to host organ failure and death.

    Describe how increasing stress to the ocean would affect a food chain containing zooxanthellae, corals, parrotfish, and sharks.

    Ocean stresses, such as rising temperatures or increasing levels of pollution, cause corals to expel their zooxanthellae symbionts. This leads to coral bleaching, and death if no new zoocanthellae colonize the corals. The dying corals will decrease the food source available to parrotfish, so the parrotfish population will decline. With fewer prey animals available, the shark population in the area will also decline.

    Watch the video: What are fungi? - The Fungi Kingdom for kids (July 2022).


  1. Zuluramar

    In my opinion, it is a false way.

  2. Mashicage

    Thanks for the information, now I will know.

  3. Shabaka

    I do not trust you

  4. Valeriu

    Bravo, this very good phrase has to be precisely on purpose

  5. Broderic

    None of your business!

Write a message