Protozoa (Encyclopedia of Science)
Protozoa are a varied group of single-celled animal-like organisms belonging to the kingdom Protista. More than 50,000 different types of protozoa have been described. Their name comes from two Greek words, protos, or "first," and zoön, or "animal." The vast majority of protozoa are microscopic, many measuring less than 1/200 millimeter. The largest, however, may reach 3 millimeters (0.1 inch) in length, large enough to be seen with the naked eye. Scientists have even discovered some fossil specimens that measured 20 millimeters (0.8 inch) in diameter.
Whatever their size, protozoa are well known for their diversity and the fact that they have evolved under so many different conditions. One of the basic requirements of all protozoa is the presence of water. Within this limitation, they may live in the sea; in rivers, lakes, or stagnant ponds of freshwater; in the soil; and even in decaying matter. Many are solitary organisms, but some live in groups. Some are free-living, while others are attached to other organisms. Some species are parasites of plants and animals, ranging from other protozoa to humans. Many protozoa form complex, exquisite shapes, although their beauty may be overlooked because of their very small size.
(The entire section is 831 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Protozoa (World of Microbiology and Immunology)
Protozoa are a very diverse group of single-celled organisms, with more than 50,000 different types represented. The vast majority are microscopic, many measuring less than 1/200 mm, but some, such as the freshwater Spirostomun, may reach 0.17 in (3 mm) in length, large enough to enable it to be seen with the naked eye.
Scientists have discovered fossilized specimen of protozoa that measured 0.78 in (20 mm) in diameter. Whatever the size, however, protozoans are well-known for their diversity and the fact that they have evolved under so many different conditions.
One of the basic requirements of all protozoans is the presence of water, but within this limitation, they may live in the sea, in rivers, lakes, stagnant ponds of freshwater, soil, and in some decaying matters. Many are solitary organisms, but some live in colonies; some are free-living, others are sessile; and some species are even parasites of plants and animals (including humans). Many protozoans form complex, exquisite shapes and their beauty is often greatly overlooked on account of their diminutive size.
The protozoan cell body is often bounded by a thin pliable membrane, although some sessile forms may have a toughened outer layer formed of cellulose, or even distinct shells formed from a mixture of materials. All the processes of life take place within this cell wall. The inside of the membrane is filled with a fluid-like material called cytoplasm, in which a number of tiny organs float. The most important of these is the nucleus, which is essential for growth and reproduction. Also present are one or more contractile vacuoles, which resemble air bubbles, whose job it is to maintain the correct water balance of the cytoplasm and also to assist with food assimilation.
Protozoans living in salt water do not require contractile vacuoles as the concentration of salts in the cytoplasm is similar to that of seawater and there is therefore no net loss or gain of fluids. Food vacuoles develop whenever food is ingested and shrink as digestion progresses. If too much water enters the cell, these vacuoles swell, move towards the edge of the cell wall and release the water through a tiny pore in the membrane.
Some protozoans contain the green pigment chlorophyll more commonly associated with higher plants, and are able to manufacture their own foodstuffs in a similar manner to plants. Others feed by engulfing small particles of plant or animal matter. To assist with capturing prey, many protozoans have developed an ability to move. Some, such as Euglena and Trypanosoma are equipped with a single whip like flagella which, when quickly moved back and forth, pushes the body through the surrounding water body. Other protozoans (e.g., Paramecium) have developed large numbers of tiny cilia around the membrane; the rhythmic beat of these hairlike structures propel the cell along and also carry food, such as bacteria, towards the gullet. Still others are capable of changing the shape of their cell wall. The Amoeba, for example, is capable of detecting chemicals given off by potential food particles such as diatoms, algae, bacteria or other protozoa. As the cell wall has no definite shape, the cytoplasm can extrude to form pseudopodia (Greek pseudes, "false"; pous, "foot") in various sizes and at any point of the cell surface. As the Amoeba approaches its prey, two pseudopodia extend out from the main cell and encircle and engulf the food, which is then slowly digested.
Various forms of reproduction have evolved in this group, one of the simplest involves a splitting of the cell in a process known as binary fission. In species like amoeba, this process takes place over a period of about one hour: the nucleus divides and the two sections drift apart to opposite ends of the cell. The cytoplasm also begins to divide and the cell changes shape to a dumb-bell appearance. Eventually the cell splits giving rise to two identical "daughter" cells that then resume moving and feeding. They, in turn, can divide further in this process known as asexual reproduction, where only one individual is involved.
Some species that normally reproduce asexually, may occasionally reproduce through sexual means, which involves the joining, or fusion, of the nuclei from two different cells. In the case of paramecium, each individual has two nuclei: a larger macronucleus that is responsible for growth, and a much smaller micronucleus that controls reproduction. When paramecium reproduce by sexual means, two individuals join in the region of the oral groove shallow groove in the cell membrane that opens to the outside. When this has taken place, the macronuclei of each begins to disintegrate, while the micronucleus divides in four. Three of these then degenerate and the remaining nucleus divides once again to produce two micronuclei that are genetically identical. The two cells then exchange one of these nuclei that, upon reaching the other individual's micronucleus, fuse to form what is known as a zygote nucleus. Shortly afterwards, the two cells separate but within each cell a number of other cellular and cytoplasmic divisions will continue to take place, eventually resulting in the production of four daughter cells from each individual.
Protozoans have evolved to live under a great range of environmental conditions. When these conditions are unfavorable, such as when food is scarce, most species are able to enter an inactive phase, where cells become non-motile and secrete a surrounding cyst that prevents desiccation and protects the cell from extreme temperatures. The cysts may also serve as a useful means of dispersal, with cells being borne on the wind or on the feet of animals. Once the cyst reaches a more favorable situation, the outer wall breaks down and the cell resumes normal activity.
Many species are of considerable interest to scientists, not least because of the medical problems that many cause. The tiny Plasmodium protozoan, the cause of malaria in humans, is responsible for hundreds of millions of cases of illness each year, with many deaths occurring in poor countries. This parasite is transferred from a malarial patient to a healthy person by the bite of female mosquitoes of the genus Anopheles. As the mosquito feeds on a victim's blood the parasites pass from its salivary glands into the open wound. From there, they make their way to the liver where they multiply and later enter directly into red blood cells. Here they multiply even further, eventually causing the blood cell to burst and release from 6-36 infectious bodies into the blood plasma. A mosquito feeding on such a patient's blood may absorb some of these organisms, allowing the parasite to complete its life cycle and begin the process all over again. The shock of the release of so many parasites into the human blood stream results in a series of chills and feversypical symptoms of malaria. Acute cases of malaria may continue for some days or even weeks, and may subside if the body is able to develop immunity to the disease. Relapses, however, are common and malaria is still a major cause of death in the tropics. Although certain drugs have been developed to protect people from Plasmodium many forms of malaria have now developed, some of which are even immune to the strongest medicines.
While malaria is one of the best known diseases known to be caused by protozoans, a wide range of other equally devastating ailments are also caused by protozoan infections. Amoebic dysentery, for example, is caused by Entamoeba histolytica.; African sleeping sickness, which is spread by the bite of the tsetse fly, is caused by the flagellate protozoan Trypanosoma; a related species T. cruzi causes Chagas' disease in South and Central America; Eimeria causes coccidiosis in rabbits and poultry; and Babesia, spread by ticks, causes red water fever in cattle.
Not all protozoans are parasites however, although this is by far a more specialized life style than that adopted by free-living forms. Several protozoans form a unique, nondestructive, relationship with other species, such as those found in the intestine of wood-eating termites. Living in the termites' intestines the protozoans are provided with free board and lodgings as they ingest the wood fibers for their own nutrition. In the process of doing so, they also release proteins which can be absorbed by the termite's digestive system, which is otherwise unable to break down the tough cellulose walls of the wood fibers. Through this mutualistic relationship, the termites benefit from a nutritional source that they could otherwise not digest, while the protozoans receive a safe home and steady supply of food.
See also Amoebic dysentery; Entamoeba histolytica; Epidemiology, tracking diseases with technology; Waste water treatment; Water quality