Saprophytes

Any organisms that live off or feed on other dead, decaying or decomposed organic matter are called saprophytes. Unlike parasites, they do not feed on living organisms. Originating from a Greek word, Saprophytes are usually referred to as “plant”- the word “phyte” means plants. 

Saprophytes are useful in breaking down decomposed or dead organic matter into simpler particles which are easily recyclable by plants. The role they play in balancing the entire ecosystem makes them an integral part of soil biology. 

Common examples of saprophytes are certain bacteria and fungi. Mushrooms and moulds, Indian pipe, Corallorhiza orchids and Mycorrhizal fungi are some examples of saprophytic plants. 

During the process of feeding, saprophytes break down decomposed organic matter that is left behind by other dead organisms and plants. Essential minerals are left behind in this process of feeding, which then becomes one with the soil and is taken in by plants. 

Saprophytes and the Process of Feeding 

Saprophytes generally feed on all forms of dead, decomposed or decaying matter in an ecosystem, therefore their food includes both animal and plant remains. What remains behind after saprophytes have fed on it is actually a source of rich food for plants. 

Characteristic Features of Saprophytes

Listed below are some features that are common among all saprophytes. 

  • Due to the absence of chlorophyll, saprophytes cannot conduct photosynthesis. As a result, they cannot make their own food and have to depend on other sources of food to survive. 

  • They feed on dead, decaying or decomposed matter. Saprophytes, however, are living organisms. 

  • Saprophytes produce spores and filaments. 

  • They are of utmost importance in soil biology. 

  • Saprophytes do not have roots, stems or leaves. 

  • They are mostly unicellular organisms. 

  • These organisms are ameboid. 

  • Saprophytes are heterotrophic. 

  • They are responsible for breaking down decomposed or decaying substances into simple organic substances which later on are fed on by plants. 

  • They derive their source of food and energy by going on living fungi or any other parasitic living form. 

  • Modes of reproduction in saprophytes are usually by division or sexual or asexual formation of spores. 

Saprophytic Nutrition 

Saprophytic nutrition is the process of animals feeding on dead and decomposed substances or organisms for energy, food and nutrition. Saprophytes hold a highly important position in the ecosystem since they help to keep the environment and surroundings clean, free of unwanted matter and also help in the process of recycling nutrients. Organisms that follow saprophytic nutrition are called saprophytes.  

Common examples of saprophytes include fungi and a couple of types of bacteria. These organisms release specific enzymes that act on complex organic substances and help to break them down into smaller and simpler particles that are easily consumable by other plant forms. 

How do Saprophytes Digest Food?

Saprophytes are mostly recognised for using a certain kind of digestive process which is extracellular digestion, that is classic of saprophytes.  In this process, certain digestive substances are secreted into the surroundings which help in breaking down organic substances into more simpler matter. The remnant nutrients then go through the process of metabolism by directly getting absorbed through the membranous cell of the organism.  

Proteins, fats and starch are cut down to simpler substances during the process of saprophytic nutrition; during digestion, proteins get converted into amino acids, fats into fatty acids. Starch to simple forms of sugar, all of which in the end are transported through the cell membranes. 

The Role of Saprophytes in Soil Biology

  • In an ecosystem, saprophytes act as decomposers. In the presence of the warmth of the environment, they accelerate and break down organisms and decaying plants into smaller organic matter in less than a day. 

  • Decaying or dead matter often contain important nutrients like phosphorus, iron, calcium or potassium that help plants to grow. These elements are released into the soil after saprophytes have fed on an organism, with the help of enzymes that are released. 

  • The entire ecosystem benefits from saprophytes, in the sense that minerals, nitrogen or carbon that were released during the process are rendered back to a usable form and taken in by plants. 

Decomposers

Decomposers play a vital role in any ecosystem by breaking down dead and decaying organisms into simpler forms of organic matter, which can later be recycled for the benefit and intake of plants. A common survival instinct, decomposers by default decompose. 

Decomposers are heterotrophic by nature- this means they ingest various forms of organic material to derive their energy. After an organism is dead, it provides nutrients for fungi or bacteria to feed on it, grow and thrive. 

Stages of Decomposition

  • After an organism dies and decomposers start feeding on it, there are five stages it goes through to complete the process of decomposition. A decomposing organism or a plant is made to go through the processes of autolysis and putrefaction. 

  • Autolysis is the process where cellular organisms in the dead organism’s body act in breaking down its various tissues and cells. Putrefaction, on the other hand, is the process of microbes growing and reproducing in the entire body even after the organism has died.  

The Five other Stages of Decomposition are as Follows:

Fresh- This occurs as soon as an organism has died. The oxygen intake of the body has completely stopped and carbon dioxide content begins to increase, leading to autolysis. Putrefaction can also occur during this stage. 

Bloat- This is the next stage where, as a result of putrefaction, there is an accumulation of gases. The remains of the dead organism start to bloat. Often during this stage, fluids and gases are purged out of the dead body. 

Active Decay- The remains of the dead organism slowly lose mass. Tissues begin to disintegrate. Chemicals like hydrogen sulphide, methane and ammonia are produced with the help of the bacteria, which often leads to bad odours at this stage.  

Advanced Decay- At this stage, there is little left to be decomposed since the organism has lost a lot of mass. In case the dead organism is on the ground, the nitrogen content will increase in the surrounding soil, something that is extremely beneficial for plants growing in and around. 

Remains- This is the final stage of decomposition where only the bones and dry skin of the dead organism is left behind.