Although many people probably think of bacteria when they hear the term microbe, there are many other microscopic organisms. Many are eukaryotic―i.e., having cells like our own, with a membrane-bound nucleus, as opposed to prokaryotic-like bacteria. While some of these are disease-causing, the majority simply exist as part of the vast food web and have their own ecological niches and importance. Many are considered protozoans, meaning they have animal-like traits and were once thought to be the ancestors of modern animals. These tiny creatures are commonly studied in school and can often be seen swimming in a drop of water viewed through a microscope. The following is a list of some of the common protozoan and algal microbes we share the world with.
Paramecium is a well-known genus of nonparasitic protozoans that can be cultivated easily in the laboratory. They are usually oval-shaped with rounded or pointed ends and are completely covered with fine hairlike filaments known as cilia. The cilia beat rhythmically to propel them around their watery environs and also serve to direct bacteria and other food particles into their “mouths.” Unlike many other eukaryotic cells, paramecia have two kinds of nuclei: a large ellipsoidal nucleus called a macronucleus and at least one small nucleus called a micronucleus. Some species live in symbiosis with certain green algae, and many are important food for larger organisms, including fish larvae.
Amoebas are primarily identified by their unusual method of movement. These single-celled organisms can stretch their cell membranes in temporary extensions called pseudopodia, or false feet, and then shift the rest of their cell contents into the “foot” to slide over to its location. This type of movement, called amoeboid movement, is considered to be the most primitive form of animal locomotion. Several amoeba species are parasitic and cause diseases such as amoebic dysentery in humans; one species (Naegleria fowleri) is an infamous “brain-eater” that can cause death if it enters the human body through the nose.
Euglena is a genus of more than 1,000 species found worldwide, many of which are commonly studied by biology classes. These microbes have a single whiplike flagellum, which beats much like a propeller to move them throughout their watery environments. Euglena are unusual in that they are photosynthetic like plants but can also feed on other organisms. They are able to absorb food―usually bacteria―directly through the cell surface by a process known as phagocytosis, in which the cell membrane entraps food particles in a specialized pocket (vacuole) for digestion. Although they are microscopic, they can amass in sufficient numbers to cause a water bloom, which colors fresh water green or red (depending on the species) and can be detrimental to wildlife.
There are about 16,000 species of diatom found in all the waters of Earth. As major oxygen producers and food for many, many aquatic organisms, diatoms are among the most important and prolific microscopic sea organisms on the planet. Diatoms are considered algae and can be colonial or live as a single cell. They are characterized by their beautiful intricate shells, which are made of silica and can persist when the organism dies. There are even artists who patiently use microscopes and needles to arrange diatoms into complex microscopic mosaics that resemble stained glass! These passive organisms do not have a means of locomotion and do not move on their own.
Volvox is a genus of about 20 species of freshwater green algae found nearly worldwide. Unlike the other microbes on this list, Volvox are exclusively colonial and form hollow spherical colonies of 500 to 60,000 cells. Some large colonies are just visible to the naked eye, but many are microscopic. Interestingly, the various cells in the colony serve different purposes. Some are equipped with flagella and work in tandem with other flagellated cells to move the colony. Cells with eyespots are generally situated together to help orient the colony toward light for photosynthesis. Such coordination and organization are highly unusual for colonial algae, and scientists believe this structure could be important in understanding how animals evolved from microorganisms.