Protista

Algae, Protozoa, Slime Molds, and Water Molds

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Protists are eukaryotic creatures <you-carry-ah-tick>, meaning their DNA is enclosed in a nucleus inside the cell (unlike bacteria, which are prokaryotic <pro-carry-ah-tick> and have no nucleus to enclose their DNA. They’re not plants, animals or fungi, but they act enough like them that scientists believe protists paved the way for the evolution of early plants, animals, and fungi. Protists fall into four general subgroups: unicellular algae, protozoa, slime molds, and water molds.

Water Molds

Water molds are always found in wet environments, especially in fresh water sources and near the upper layers of moist soil.

Officially named Oomycota, they are also known as downy mildews and white rusts.

Water molds were long considered fungi because they produce fungi-like filamentous hyphae and feed on decaying tissue like rotting logs and mulch.

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Slime Molds

In 1973, a Dallas resident went out to the backyard only to stumble upon a reddish, jelly-like mass pulsating in the grass. News reports on the discovery claimed that a “new life form” had been found, and many people couldn’t help recalling the cult classic sci-fi thriller The Blob.

Scientists called to the scene, however, put any fears of menacing goo or alien creatures to rest by identifying the mass as an unusually large (46 centimeters or more than 14 inches in diameter) plasmodial slime mold.

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Protozoa

The name protozoa means “first animals.” As the principal hunters and grazers of the microbial world, protozoa play a key role in maintaining the balance of bacterial, algal, and other microbial life. They also are themselves an important food source for larger creatures and the basis of many food chains.

Protozoa have been found in almost every kind of soil environment from peat bogs to arid desert sands. They teem in the deep sea as well as near the surface of waters, and can be found even in frigid Arctic and Antarctic waters.

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Diatoms

p_diatom1Because they depend on sunlight for photosynthesis, diatoms generally live in the upper 200 meters of oceans and bodies of fresh water.These algae hardly look like plants, but more like flying saucers, tiny canoes or cigars, lobed leaves, the undersides of mushroom caps, striated ribbons, or filigreed Christmas ornaments. Whatever their shape, all diatoms have shell-like, brittle cell walls made out of silica (glass) and pectin. The walls are two interlocking halves or shells that fit together like a pillbox.

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Dinoflagellates

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Dinoflagellates have long whip-like structures called flagella that let them turn, maneuver and spin about through the water. About 90% of these algae dwell in the ocean.

Some species glow in the dark in a process called bioluminescence. These species contain a compound called luciferin (the same compound found in fireflies). The glow increases markedly if the algae cells are agitated, as when a ship churns through the water.

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Green Algae

The most clearly plant-like algae, this species gets its namesake hue from high levels of chlorophyll.

Their cell walls are made up of cellulose, the same material that makes up the cell walls in larger, multicellular plants. Like plants, they store the food they make through photosynthesis as starches. Growing in large masses, these algae can form visible layers of slick, green scum on the surfaces and sides of ponds, puddles or damp soil.

Fossil records suggest that the first green algae originated 500 to 600 million years ago. Early algae probably gave rise to multicellular plants.

Algae

Algae also play an important role as the foundation for the aquatic food chain. All higher aquatic life forms depend either directly or indirectly on microscopic gardens of algae.

Most unicellular algae live in water, some dwell in moist soil, and others join with fungi to form lichens.

Although plants generally get the credit for producing the oxygen we breathe, some 75% or more of the oxygen in the planet’s atmosphere is actually produced by photosynthetic algae and cyanobacteria.Algae are plant-like microorganisms that preceded plants in developing photosynthesis, the ability to turn sunlight into energy. Algae cells contain light-absorbing chloroplasts and produce oxygen through photosynthesis.

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Protista of Note

  • Green algae grows in masses that form slick, green scum on pond surfaces. Its ancestors from 500 million years ago probably gave rise to today's multicellular plants.
  • Plasmodium vivax, the parasite that causes malaria, lives part of its life cycle in mosquitoes and the other part in human hosts where it infects and ruptures blood cells in large numbers.
  • Phytophthora infestans is the water mold responsible for the Great Potato Famine that killed nearly a million people in Ireland in 1846–1847.

 

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