What Is A Saprophyte And What Do Saprophytes Feed On

What Is A Saprophyte And What Do Saprophytes Feed On

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By: Jackie Carroll

When people think about fungi, they usually think about unpleasant organisms such as poisonous toadstools or those that cause moldy food. Fungi, along with some types of bacteria, belong to a group of organisms called saprophytes. Find out more about saprophytes in this article.

What is a Saprophyte?

Saprophytes are organisms that can’t make their own food. In order to survive, they feed on dead and decaying matter. Fungi and a few species of bacteria are saprophytes. Examples saprophyte plants include:

  • Indian pipe
  • Corallorhiza orchids
  • Mushrooms and molds
  • Mycorrhizal fungi

As saprophyte organisms feed, they break down decaying debris left by dead plants and animals. After the debris is broken down, what remains are rich minerals that become part of the soil. These minerals are essential for healthy plants.

What Do Saprophytes Feed On?

When a tree falls in the forest, there may not be anyone there to hear it, but you can be sure that there are saprophytes there to feed on the dead wood. Saprophytes feed on all types of dead matter in all sorts of environments, and their food includes both plant and animal debris. Saprophytes are the organisms responsible for turning food waste you throw into your compost bin into rich food for plants.

You may hear some people refer to exotic plants that live off of other plants, such as orchids and bromeliads, as saprophytes. This isn’t strictly true. These plants often consume live host plants, so they should be called parasites rather than saprophytes.

Additional Saprophyte Information

Here are some features that can help you determine whether an organism is a saprophyte. All saprophytes have these characteristics in common:

  • They produce filaments.
  • They have no leaves, stems or roots.
  • They produce spores.
  • They can’t perform photosynthesis.

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Read more about Fungus & Lichen

A parasitic plant depends on its host for survival. Some parasitic plants have no leaves. An example of this is the dodder (Figure 1), which has a weak, cylindrical stem that coils around the host and forms suckers. From these suckers, cells invade the host stem and grow to connect with the vascular bundles of the host. The parasitic plant obtains water and nutrients through these connections. The plant is a total parasite (a holoparasite) because it is completely dependent on its host. Other parasitic plants (hemiparasites) are fully photosynthetic and only use the host for water and minerals. There are about 4,100 species of parasitic plants.

Figure 1. The dodder is a holoparasite that penetrates the host’s vascular tissue and diverts nutrients for its own growth. Note that the vines of the dodder, which has white flowers, are beige. The dodder has no chlorophyll and cannot produce its own food. (credit: “Lalithamba”/Flickr)

Categorizing relationships

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In this section we are going to look at some examples of relationships between plants and other organisms. We’ll start "small," with plant-microbe relationships, then move to plant-insect, plant-plant, and, finally, plant-animal relationships. Although it’s somewhat artificial to isolate and analyze individual relationships like this, the exercise should help us, in the end, view the garden more holistically—"whole"-istically—by making us more aware of the many individual players and connections.

As usual, let’s begin by defining a few terms. You probably know by now that scientists like to categorize and name things! Here are some useful terms and definitions. (Don’t worry too much about the individual terms it’s more important to understand the variety of possible relationships.)

When two (or more) different organisms live in close association, they are said to be living in symbiosis (Gr. syn = together with, bios = life).
If both organisms benefit from the association, the relationship is called mutualism, or mutualistic symbiosis.
If one organism benefits, and the other remains unaffected, the relationship is called commensalism.
If one organism lives on or in another living organism, from which it derives nutrients, it is called a parasite, and the provider is called the host.
If one plant grows on the body of another plant, but is not parasitic, then it is called an epiphyte.
If an organism fills its nutrient needs from dead and decaying organic matter, it is called a saprophyte.

Another important concept when talking about relationships among organisms is the specificity of the relationship. This refers to how "choosy" an organism is when it comes to forming a relationship. Some relationships aren’t very specific at all. Some ivies, for example, will climb up any type of tree—the species of tree doesn’t matter. On the other hand, relationships involving very close, cell-to-cell contact tend to be very specific that is, the two organisms involved must be fully compatible. For example, certain strains of nitrogen-fixing bacteria will form root nodules on specific types of legumes, but not on others.

Now we’ll begin our look as some relationships. As you read these isolated accounts, however, keep in mind that the natural world is made up of complex systems and relationships.

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What is Saprophyte ?

Saprophyte is an organism that feeds on a decomposing matter from dead organisms.

Saprophytes can be both eukaryotes and prokaryotes. Such are many bacteria, a significant part of the fungi, certain species of plants and animals.

Most of the saprophytes are not strictly specialized and can feed on a large variety of substrates. Some saprophytic species are specialized and use only one or a limited range of sources of organic matter.

Saprophytic organisms play a very important role in the ecosystems and in the circle of substances in the biosphere. They are a crucial part of the processing of organic matter on Earth. Saprophytes process organic substances from both autotrophic and heterotrophic organisms. Thanks to them, the ground is not covered with dead organic matter.

Some species of saprophytes decompose complex organic substances to simpler ones. Others process simple organic substances to inorganic. There are also species which directly decompose the complex organic substances to inorganic.

The whole variety of saprophytic organisms ultimately converts the organic substances formed by autotrophic and used by heterotrophic organisms into inorganic ones. Thus the inorganic substances are available to autotrophic organisms, which turn them into organic substances again.

What are Saprophytes?

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Saprophytes are living organisms that feed on dead organic matter. They are considered extremely important in soil biology, as they break down dead and decaying organic matter into simple substances that can be taken up and recycled by plants. The term is usually used to refer to saprophytic fungi or bacteria.

In the strict botanical definition, the term "saprophyte" is something of a misnomer. "Phyte" means a plant, and bacteria and fungi are not classified as plants. Some higher plants such as certain types of orchids and a family of flowering plants called monotropes were once included in this category, because they do not use photosynthesis to make nutrients, so it was believed that they extracted nutrients from dead organic matter. It is now known that these types of plants are actually parasites that obtain their food by growing on living fungi. As such, there are no known true saprophytic plants.

Saprophytes are characterized by their use of a particular kind of digestion mechanism, called extra-cellular digestion. This process involves the secretion of digestive substances into the surrounding environment, where they break down organic matter into simple substances. The resulting nutrients are then absorbed directly through the membranes of the organism's cells, and metabolized.

In saprophytic nutrition, the main classes of matter that are broken down are proteins, fats, and starches. Proteins are digested into amino acids. Fats are broken down into glycerol and fatty acids. Starches are digested into simple sugars. All of the resulting substances are then of a small enough molecular size that they can be transported across the cell membranes.

Suitable conditions are needed for the optimum growth of the common types of saprophytes. There must be sufficient water in the soil or surrounding environment. There must usually be oxygen present, as the majority cannot grow under anaerobic conditions. The acidity of the soil or environment usually needs to be neutral, or slightly acidic, as most of these organisms do not thrive under alkaline conditions.

Some of the most common include certain saprophytic fungus types, such as those in the families of Rhizopus and Mucor. These fungi typically have an extensive network of hyphae, similar to tiny roots, which grow through the soil or through dead wood or other organic matter. They grow in a network called a mycelium. This enables the fungus to thoroughly penetrate the local organic matter, within which the hyphae secrete digestive enzymes and absorb the resulting nutrients.


a plant that feeds on the organic matter of dead organisms or on the excrement of living organisms. Their type of feeding places saprophytes in the group of heterotrophic organisms. Saprophytes and autotrophic organisms play an important role in the cycle of matter in nature saprophytes promote the decomposition of carcasses and animal excrement into water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and other inorganic compounds.

Saprophytes are found mainly among bacteria, actinomy-cetes, and fungi. Typical algal saprophytes are Polytoma of the family Chlamydomonadinaceae and Prototheca of the family Protococcales. Some saprophytes transfer to a parasitic mode of existence. A number of photosynthesizing organisms, such as some green algae, may also feed saprophytically.

Flowering plants of the families Pyrolaceae, Orchidaceae, and Burmanniaceae are sometimes considered as saprophytes, but it is more accurate to regard them as mycotrophic parasitic plants. The plants receive nutrient matter from the soil via a mycorrhizal fungus, and they are also marked by photosynthesis.

Watch the video: Saprophytic Nutrition