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. Most protists are microscopic and unicellular, but some true multicellular forms exist. 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. Still other protists are composed of enormous, multinucleate, single cells that look like amorphous blobs of slime, or in other cases, like ferns. In fact, many protist cells are multinucleated; in some species, 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 (a single hectare is nearly 2.5 acres in size). 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: these are typically euglena. Others are covered in rows or tufts of tiny cilia that they coordinately beat to swim—typically paramecium. Still others form cytoplasmic extensions called pseudopodia anywhere on the cell, anchor the pseudopodia to a substrate, and pull themselves forward in an “oozing” movement: these are typically amoeba.

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.

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.

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

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