What Are Saprophytes?
Saprophytes are a group of organisms that include many different types of microorganisms. They range from single celled organisms to large colonies. Some species live in soil or water, while others inhabit rocks and other hard surfaces such as coral reefs. Most species are found only in certain areas of the world.
Most saprophytes are single-celled, but some have multi-cellular forms. Many species grow at temperatures ranging from freezing cold to boiling hot, and they can survive extremes in both directions. Other types can withstand extreme pressures and even high levels of radiation.
Some species are parasitic, meaning they feed off other living things. Others can’t live without their hosts, so they’re called endophytes. Endophytes do not require sunlight to photosynthesize; instead they use chemical energy provided by the sun or other sources.
These kinds of organisms include algae and cyanobacteria.
Classification. There are many different types of saprophytic fungi and other species, including lichens, molds, mushrooms, and others. They’re sometimes classified as primary or secondary saprophytes.
Most people are at least passingly familiar with the first group, which break down dead organic matter like trees and plants. The second group is similar, but doesn’t eat wood; instead they eat soil.
What Do Saprophytes Feed On?
The answer to this question is that they feed on dead or decaying organic matter. This can be wood, soil, leaves, animals, even humans. That’s right — some of these critters can invade the human body and cause all sorts of problems. It is not a good idea to have a serious infestation of these life forms.
Some saprophytic fungi and other plants lie in wait until they get the opportunity to eat something fresh. Others are more aggressive. For example, you may have seen a mushroom sprout through a pile of leaves on the ground.
These aren’t saprophytes; they’re mycorrhizal fungi. They feed on the dead leaves, but they also get nutrition from the root systems of living plants.
The distinction between these two types is an important one for plant biologists and environmentalists. Some people get very upset when they see mushrooms growing in their yard, because they think it means the trees are dying. In reality, the trees and the mushrooms are living in harmony, each getting what it needs from the other.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms do not damage plants. They actually help plants by making nutrients in the soil available to the roots.
In fact, many saprophytic fungi are just as important for plant life as mycorrhizal ones. Without these life forms breaking down dead or dying plants and animals, the world would be overwhelmed with the stuff in no time at all.
Helpful or Harmful?
Many people have a love-hate relationship with saprophytic fungi and other species in this group. On the one hand, they play an important role in keeping the world from filling up with dead and dying organic matter. On the other, some of these critters are responsible for some pretty awful diseases and conditions.
An example is the white rot fungus, which is used commercially to break down dead trees. It’s considered a renewable resource. There are many others.
Other forms of these organisms can be very dangerous to humans and other living things. A prime example is the chytrid fungus, which is destroying amphibian populations all over the world. The culprit behind white nose syndrome, which has killed off millions of bats in North America, is also a type of fungus.
Some of the most interesting members of this group are the mushrooms. Most people think only of the edible, tasty ones when they think of these organisms, but there are many non-edible — and even poisonous — mushroom varieties out there. If you’re interested in collecting and eating wild mushrooms, be absolutely sure you can identify the edible ones.
There are no real look-alikes when it comes to mushrooms, so consult a guide and get expert help if you’re not sure.
We’re just scratching the surface when it comes to the diversity of these fascinating life forms. Between the ones that eat plants, the ones that eat other organisms and the ones that do both, there is a huge variety of ways to make a living in the world of fungi and similar species. You have to love the fact that these organisms have come up with all these different adaptations and solutions to life’s challenges.
It’s enough to make you wonder what kind of bizarre lifestyles and adaptations we humans will be coming up with a million years from now. The future is wide open!
Sources & references used in this article:
Toxigenic saprophytic fungi in marine shellfish farming areas by C Sallenave-Namont, YF Pouchus, TR Du Pont… – Mycopathologia, 2000 – Springer
Plants parasitic on fungi: unearthing the fungi in myco-heterotrophs and debunking the ‘saprophytic’plant myth by JR Leake – Mycologist, 2005 – Elsevier
Saprophytic growth of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi by C Azcón-Aguilar, B Bago, JM Barea – Mycorrhiza, 1999 – Springer
The role of saprophytic microflora in the development of Fusarium ear blight of winter wheat caused by Fusarium culmorum by J Liggitt, P Jenkinson, DW Parry – Crop protection, 1997 – Elsevier
Studies on saprophytic mycobacterium and corynebacterium. by HL Jensen – Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South …, 1934 – cabdirect.org