Cell Structure and Motility

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the cell structure of protists
  • Describe the motility of protists

Cell Structure

The cells of protists are among the most elaborate of all cells. Multicellular plants, animals, and fungi are embedded among the protists in eukaryotic phylogeny. In most plants and animals and some fungi, complexity arises out of multicellularitytissue specialization, and subsequent interaction because of these features. Although a rudimentary form of multicellularity exists among some of the organisms labelled as “protists,” those that have remained unicellular show how complexity can evolve in the absence of true multicellularity, with the differentiation of cellular morphology and function. A few protists live as colonies that behave in some ways as a group of free-living cells and in other ways as a multicellular organism. Some protists are composed of enormous, multinucleate, single cells that look like amorphous blobs of slime, or in other cases, like ferns. In some species of protists, the nuclei are different sizes and have distinct roles in protist cell function.

Single protist cells range in size from less than a micrometer to three meters in length to hectares! Protist cells may be enveloped by animal-like cell membranes or plant-like cell walls. Others are encased in glassy silica-based shells or wound with pellicles of interlocking protein strips. The pellicle functions like a flexible coat of armor, preventing the protist from being torn or pierced without compromising its range of motion.


The majority of protists are motile, but different types of protists have evolved varied modes of movement (Figure 1). Some protists have one or more flagella, which they rotate or whip. Others are covered in rows or tufts of tiny cilia that they beat in a coordinated manner to swim. Still others form cytoplasmic extensions called pseudopodia anywhere on the cell, anchor the pseudopodia to a substrate, and pull themselves forward. Some protists can move toward or away from a stimulus, a movement referred to as taxis. For example, movement toward light, termed phototaxis, is accomplished by coupling their locomotion strategy with a light-sensing organ.

Part a shows a shoe-shaped Paramecium, which is covered with fine, hair-like cilia. Part b shows an Amoeba, which is irregular in shape with long extensions of cytoplasm jutting out from the main body. The extensions are called pseudopods. Part c shows an oval Euglena, which has a narrow front end. A long, whip-like flagellum protrudes from the back end.

Figure 1. Protists use various methods for transportation. (a) Paramecium waves hair-like appendages called cilia to propel itself. (b) Amoeba uses lobe-like pseudopodia to anchor itself to a solid surface and pull itself forward. (c) Euglena uses a whip-like tail called a flagellum to propel itself.

Practice Questions

Protists that have a pellicle are surrounded by ______________.

  1. silica dioxide
  2. calcium carbonate
  3. carbohydrates
  4. proteins

Which of these locomotor organs would likely be the shortest?

  1. a flagellum
  2. a cilium
  3. an extended pseudopod
  4. a pellicle

Try It


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