The group of organisms known as 'protozoa' are defined by a few of their shared characteristics. Protozoa are non-phototrophic, unicellular, eukaryotic microorganisms with no cell walls. This diverse group of over 65,000 species generally share these basic attributes. Looking deeper, this group can be extremely complex and variable. In fact, the protozoa are often described as the pinnacle of unicellular complexity.
Unlike the relatively simple bacteria, protozoa can have many different intracellular organelles performing specific tasks. Some species of protozoa have structures that are analogous to mouths, GI tracts, and anuses. This probably goes against everything you've been taught about microbes being simply bags of proteins and enzymes.
Many protozoa cause diseases in animals and humans. Some, like Plasmodium, which causes malaria, can be devastating to people worldwide. Others, like Trichomonas, cause sexually transmitted diseases that are relatively benign and 100% curable. The vast majority of the species, though, are completely harmless. But, as is usually the case in microbiology, it's the dangerous ones that get the most attention.
The protozoa can have very diverse lifecycles with multiple morphological stages, depending on species. Most protozoa have a cyst stage, which is dormant and highly resistant to environmental stress. In the disease-causing species, these cysts are often the mode of infection, frequently acquired by fecal-oral contamination. The trophozoite stage is the active, reproductive, and feeding stage. The image below shows a purple trophozoite emerging from an oblong brownish-red cyst.
A trophozoite emerging from a cyst
The trophozoite is the stage that typically causes disease by pathogenic protozoa. This trophozoite can be very specific, infecting only one species, like humans. Or, it can be more general, infecting whole groups, like any mammal, for example.
Since the protozoa are so diverse and only distantly related, they have been separated into four major groups based on motility and the structures used to generate movement. We're going to look at all four groups individually, highlighting the key points and providing examples of important species within the group.
The first group are the Mastigophora, also known as the Flagellates. As the name indicates, this group swims by waving long, whip-like flagella. The protozoal flagellum is structurally different than the bacterial flagellum. Also, the protozoal flagellum waves while the bacterial flagellum spins.
There are several important disease-causing flagellates. Trypanosoma brucei causes African sleeping sickness, a disease that kills an estimated 65,000 people in Africa every year. The lifecycle of Trypanosoma is interesting because it uses two hosts. The disease manifests in humans but must be transmitted through the bite of an infected tsetse fly.
Giardia is a common pathogenic flagellate that causes diarrhea and is known informally as Beaver Fever. Another common protozoa is Trichomonas, a sexually transmitted flagellate that can cause urogenital symptoms in infected women.
The Sarcodina group are commonly known as the Amoebas. This is a huge group with members found in nearly every environment imaginable. These amoebas are characterized by having a trophozoite stage that is naked, meaning the cell has no structural components on its membrane that maintain a shape. What results is an amorphous blob that moves by pseudopod projections.
The cell extends forward a portion of its cell membrane, called a pseudopod, as it slowly withdraws the cell membrane on the opposite end. The result is slow movement in one direction by simply pushing forward and pulling up the rear. These are classic microbes examined in intro bio classes to demonstrate an interesting mode of motility.
There are many genera of Amoebas that live symbiotically with animals, typically in the oral cavity or gastrointestinal tract. Very few cause disease, but one species in particular, Entamoeba histolytica, can be quite deadly. The disease is acquired by drinking water contaminated with Entamoeba cysts, usually present in areas with poor sanitation. Entamoeba can cause amoebic dysentery characterized by painful ulcers in the large intestine and diarrhea. Every year about 100,000 people die worldwide from Entamoeba histolytica.
The next group are the Ciliophora, commonly known as the Ciliates. As the name suggests, these protozoa move by waving short cilia that line the cell. Many ciliates are predatory, chasing down and consuming bacteria, fungi, or other protozoa. The cilia provide great mobility, allowing the ciliates to move rapidly, stop abruptly, and turn sharply in pursuit of their prey.
Another interesting characteristic of the ciliates is the presence of two nuclei. A macronucleus houses most of the genome and is responsible for directing the basic cell processes. There is also a micronucleus that is only involved in sexual reproduction and genetic inheritance. Ciliates without a micronucleus, lost either naturally or removed by scientists, are unable to reproduce sexually but can still replicate asexually.
The most common genus within the ciliates is the genus Paramecium. This ciliate is found in nearly any environmental water sample, making it a convenient organism to study in introductory biology classes. Paramecium is also harmless, ensuring safe examination by budding young scientists.
The last group is the Apicomplexa, more commonly called Sporozoans. This group is quite different than the other three. This is the only group that have mature forms that are non-motile. Sporozoans lack flagella and cilia and are unable to make pseudopods. All sporozoans are obligate parasites, meaning they must live in association with a host organism. This group can often have complex lifecycles that require multiple host species.
Many sporozoans cause disease. Of all the diseases caused by protozoa, the deadliest is malaria, caused by the sporozoan Plasmodium. When a female Anopheles mosquito bites a human, it is able to transmit Plasmodium into the bloodstream. Malaria develops when the Plasmodium invades the host's red blood cells, replicates itself, and bursts all the infected red blood cells at once. Malaria still kills over 600,000 people every year, mostly children under the age of 5 that live in Africa.
Toxoplasma and Cryptosporidium are two more examples of disease-causing sporozoans that infect humans.
It's time to review.
Protozoa are a diverse group of organisms that are non-phototrophic, unicellular, eukaryotic microorganisms with no cell walls. In general, protozoa have different stages in their lifecycles. Trophozoite is the active, reproductive, and feeding stage. In the cyst stage, the organism is dormant and highly resistant to environmental stress. Some lifecycles require specific species to serve as hosts. Others are more general, able to infect a large number of different hosts.
Still others require two different organisms to complete their lifecycle.
Protozoa are divided into four main groups based on how the organism moves. The Flagellates move by waving long, whip-like flagella. Trypanosoma and Giardia are common flagellates. The Amoebas move by pseudopod action. Entamoeba histolytica is a common amoeboid pathogen.
The Ciliates are a large group that move by waving cilia. This predatory group is generally harmless, targeting bacteria and other protozoa, with very few causing disease in humans. Paramecium is the classic ciliate.
The Sporozoans are non-motile. They are obligate parasites, often with complex lifecycles. Malaria, the deadliest protozoal disease, is caused by the sporozoan Plasmodium.
At the conclusion of this lesson, you'll be able to:
- Describe the general characteristics of protozoa
- Explain the lifecycles of protozoa
- List the four main groups of protozoa and state how the groups are classfified
- Summarize the specific characteristics and provide examples of each group: Flagellates, Amoebas, Ciliates and Sporozoans