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BIO120

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Protozoa: Ecological Importance and Pathogenicity

A. Ecological Importance of Protozoans


The ecological properties of protozoans are correlated with their size. Protozoa play a key role in
food chains as grazers of bacteria and smaller photosynthetic eukaryotes, increasing
mineralization of nutrients for primary producers. As minute organisms, they tend to have a rapid
growth and a high metabolic rate, thus small protozoan biomass may have a relatively large effect
on element cycling.
1. Food Chain
The primary production of aquatic communities enters microbial food webs or microbial
loops which protozoans are a part of. In this loop, dissolved organic carbon released from
primary producers and other sources is utilized by heterotrophic bacteria which are consumed
by nanoflagellates (e.g. choanoflagellates, chrysophytes, kinetoplastids). These
nanoflagellates are grazed by larger flagellates (e.g. euglenophytes, ebriids, dinoflagellates)
actinopods or ciliates, which in turn are consumed by animal predators, thus re-entering the
food chain.
2. Nutrient Cycling
Protozoa release a fraction of their used up nutrients in remineralized form as NH 4+ and PO43-.
Because they have a rapid growth rate, the nutrient excretion rates for small flagellates are
among the highest among eukaryotes. Protozoa thriving in soil play an important role in the
remineralization and the return of nutrients to plants. Protozoa are also active bacterial
grazers in soil (amoebae, heterotrophic flagellates and ciliates). Ciliates, for example, are
important source of food for earthworms. The rhizosphere or the narrow soil surrounding the
roots is rich in protozoa because organic matter secreted as a carbohydrate-rich gel at root tips
and disintegrating root surface cells provides a source of food for bacteria which are in turn
grazed by protozoa.
3. Symbiotic Protozoans
Protozoa engage in symbiotic relationship, that is, literally living together irrespective of
the functional significance, with other organisms. Many protozoa form symbiotic relationship
with a photosynthetic organism such as Paramecium bursaria with Chlorella cells. Another
example of a symbiotic relationship is between zooflagellates and termites and wood-eating
roaches. The insect host relies upon the flagellate symbionts to produce the cellulose which
allows it to survive a diet of wood (obligatory mutualism). Protozoa also forms mutualistic
relations with prokaryotes. An example is the interstitial marine ciliate Kentrophoros which
farms an H2S utilizing photosynthetic sulphur bacterium, which also transports them to
favorable environments, and ingest some to provide a source of food.
4. Other Significance
Protozoa play important role in carbon cycling. Photosynthetic protozoa absorb carbon
dioxide in the ocean for photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is the major raw material in the
production of carbohydrate during photosynthesis. Protozoa can also be utilized as
bioindicators. The presence or absence of a specific protozoa in an environment (e.g. river)
can indicate either ecological integrity or disturbance (e.g. pollution). Protozoa, which can
accumulate environmental toxins, sampled from a particular environment can be analyzed for
the presence of toxic substances.
B. Pathogenic Protozoa
While some free living protozoa have ecological importance, others are parasitic and capable of
causing severe infection. Table 1 summarizes some of the diseases caused by pathogenic
protozoa:
Table 1. Summary of some Pathogenic Protozoa
Pathogen
Giardia lamblia
(Archaezoa)

Disease
Giardiasis

Description/Symptoms
Diarrheal disease; Giardia
lives as a parasite in the
intestine and is passed in
feces; mostly asymptomatic;
symptoms may include
nausea, chills, low grade
fever, epigastric pain and

Prepared by: Vanessa Olga J. Dagondon (Group II)

Transmission
Infectious cysts are
excreted in in feces of
infected persons,
thereby contaminating
hands, drinking water,
swimming pool, and
food.

BIO120

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Trichomonas
vaginalis
(Archaezoa)

Trichomoniasis

Entamoeba
histolytica
(Amoebozoa)

Amoebiasis

Balamuthia
mandrillaris
(Amoebozoa)

Granulomatous
Amebic
Encephalitis
(GAE)

Plasmodium
(Apicomplexa)

Malaria

Leishmania
(Euglenozoa)

Leishmaniasis

Trypanosoma
cruzi
(Euglenozoa)

Changas
Disease

T. gambiense or
T. rhodesiense
(Euglenozoa)

African
trypanosomiasis
or
Sleeping
Sickness

sudden onset of watery


diarrhea.
infection involves the vagina,
urethra and prostate.
Symptoms include itching and
irritation in the genitals,
discomfort in urination or
ejaculation, unusual foul
discharges.
Intestinal amoebic infection;
may be asymptomatic but
symptoms include loose to
bloody stools, stomach pain
and fever.
serious infection of the brain
and spinal cord; symptoms
include behavioral changes,
seizures and partial paralysis;
mortality rate of more than
95%.
mosquito-borne disease; first
symptoms include fever,
headache, chills and vomiting.
If not treated, diseases can
progress leading to death.
Two common forms of
disease: Cutaneous
leishmaniasis which is
characterized by cutaneous
lesions where sandflies have
fed; and, Visceral
leishmaniasis which affects
internal organs (spleen and
liver).
Most common indications are
the local swelling (chagoma)
where the parasite entered the
body and the Romanas sign
(swelling of the eyelids near
the bite). Two phases of
Chagas disease: acute phase,
which lasts for a few weeks or
months of infection; chronic
phase, which lasts for decades
or a lifetime of infection and
may develop cardiac and
intestinal complications.
Infection occurs in 3 stages:
Trypanosomal chancre where
infection develops on the site
of inoculation;
hemolymphatic stage, where
symptoms such as fever,
lymphadenopathy and
pruritus appear; and
meningoencephalitic stage,
where the invasion progresses
to the CNS.

References:

Prepared by: Vanessa Olga J. Dagondon (Group II)

Transmitted through
vaginal, oral, or anal
sex with an infected
individual.

Cysts are acquired by


the fecal-oral route,
usually by drinking
contaminated water.
Balamuthia is thought
to enter the body when
contaminated
soil
comes in contact with
skin wounds and cuts,
or is breathed in.
Transmitted through the
bites of infected female
Anopheles mosquitoes.

Transmitted through the


bite of phlebotomine
sand flies.

Transmitted
through
triatomine bugs. Other
modes of transmission
include
congenital
transmission (from a
pregnant woman to her
baby),
blood
transfusion, and organ
transplant.

Transmitted by infected
tsetse fly.

BIO120

09/30/16

Vickerman, V. (1992, July 10). The diversity and ecological significance of Protozoa. Biodiversity and
Conversation, 1, 334-341.
Pathogenic
Protozoa
[PDF].
(n.d.).
Retrieved
on
http://www.pmbio.icbm.de/lehre/ws1011/vleuk/pathoprotozoa.pdf

Prepared by: Vanessa Olga J. Dagondon (Group II)

September

30,

2016

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