protozoan (prō´təzō´ən), informal term for the unicellular heterotrophs of the kingdom Protista. Protozoans comprise a large, diverse assortment of microscopic or near-microscopic organisms that live as single cells or in simple colonies and that show no differentiation into tissues. Formerly classified in the animal kingdom, they are now generally divided into five protist phyla: Mastigophora (the flagellates), Sarcodina (the amebas), Ciliophora (the ciliates), Opalinida, and Sporozoa. Most are motile, and most ingest food, as do animals, rather than produce it themselves, as do plants. The 26,000 living species are cosmopolitan in distribution; they are found in freshwater and at all depths in the ocean; some live in soil. Some are parasites in the bodies of humans or other animals, sometimes causing diseases.
Cellular Structure and Function
The various forms have in common a unicellular structure consisting of a mass of cytoplasm with one or more nuclei (see cell). Like all cells, they are bounded by a thin cell membrane; in addition, most have a tough outer membrane called a pellicle, which maintains their form. Despite their small size and lack of organization into multicellular systems, protozoans carry on all the metabolic functions of animals. Organelles, or intracellular structures, carry out a variety of functions, such as digestion, excretion, respiration, and coordination of movement; some protozoans are much more complex in their internal structure than are the cells of multicellular animals.
Some protozoans have complex digestive systems and feed on large food particles, such as other microorganisms. The food is digested by means of enzymes and the wastes transported to the cell surface or stored in vacuoles (bubblelike spaces in the cytoplasm). Others have no digestive system and absorb dissolved organic matter through the cell membrane.
Respiration is accomplished by the diffusion of dissolved gases through the cell membrane. Oxygen diffuses into the cell, where it oxidizes food molecules, producing energy and the organic molecules used for the building and maintenance of the cell. Carbon dioxide and water, the waste products of this oxidation, diffuse out of the cell.
Reproduction is usually asexual, occurring mostly by cell division, or binary fission; some forms reproduce asexually by budding or by the formation of spores (reproductive cells that give rise to a new organism without fertilization). In certain groups sexual reproduction sometimes also occurs. In these instances, cell division is preceded by the fusion of two individuals or, in ciliates, by conjugation and exchange of nuclear material.
See H. Curtis, The Marvelous Animals (1968); T. Jahn, How to Know the Protozoa (2d ed. 1978); J. J. Lee, S. H. Hunter, and E. C. Bovee, An Illustrated Guide to the Protozoa (1985); M. Sleigh, Protozoa and Other Protists (1989).