Protists as Decomposers

Learning Outcomes

  • Provide examples of the protists’ important roles in decomposition

Various organisms with a protist-level organization were originally treated as fungi, because they produce sporangia, structures producing and containing spores. These include chytrids, slime molds, water molds, and Labyrinthulomycetes. Many of these organisms were also treated as fungi due to a similar environmental role: that of a decomposer.

These 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.

Chytrids can be single or multi-cellular. There are about one thousand species, most living in water or soil. Most are decomposers. Some are parasites and can cause diseases in plants, including corn, alfalfa, and potatoes. One species, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, seems to be the cause of chytridiomycosis, a disease of frogs that is seriously affecting many wild frog populations around the world.

Slime mold on lawn, U.S.A. Trail of movement can be seen.

Figure 1. Slime mold on lawn, U.S.A

Slime molds are notable for their unusual life cycle. In some species, individual single-celled organisms come together and fuse to form a giant cell with thousands of nuclei. This body, called a plasmodium, can move around consuming bacteria, fungi, and decaying plant matter. (This is a different usage of the word plasmoidium from that used previously for the genus of parasitic protozoa.) Slime molds are found worldwide.

Water molds thrive in water and wet soil. They are considered to be more closely related to plants than fungi since they have cellulose cell walls. They are single-celled. Many are parasites and can cause diseases in plants, fungi, and animals. One species Phytophthora infestans causes the potato blight, which led to the Irish potato famine.

Labyrinthulomycetes form a network of tubes or filaments over which the single-celled organisms slide to gather food. They are mostly marine and are decomposers of dead plant material or parasites on plants and algae or some animals.

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