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An Overview of Dinoflagellates

Last updated date: 16th May 2024
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Dinoflagellates: A Brief Overview

Though most dinoflagellates are marine planktons, some of them are also found in freshwater ecosystems.  They are known to possess the characteristics of both flora and fauna and serve as a crucial link in the food chain.

Notably, there are over 4500 species of dinoflagellates, half of which tend to be autotrophs. On the other hand, the rest are mostly autotrophs which avail nutrients through phagocytosis. Furthermore, they are diverse in their form and comprise a significant share of the bioluminescent dinoflagellates. 

Keeping this information in mind, let us proceed to find out more about these unicellular protists in detail.

Classification of Dinoflagellates

As per the 5-kingdom scheme, algae and protozoa belong to Kingdom Protista. What is noteworthy is that they are distinct from protozoa because they are photosynthetic.


The Subgroups of Phylum Dinoflagellates Include

  • Duboscq Llea.

  • Dinophyceae.

  • Oxyrrhea.

  • Bacillariophyceae.

  • Syndiniophyceae.

  • Psammosea. 

  • Noctis Lucis Phyceae.

  • Pronoctilucea.

This Table Below Highlights the Scientific Classification of Dinoflagellates











Some of the Most Common Genera of Dinoflagellates Include 

  • Ceratium.

  • Gonyaulax.

  • Noctiluca.

  • Protoperidinium.

  • Ornithocerus.

  • Peridinium.

  • Gymnodinium.

  • Alexandrium.

  • Lingulodinium.

Structure of Dinoflagellates

  • These are some important pointers about dinoflagellates structure

  • They are unicellular organisms with an eukaryotic cell.

  • They have two distinct flagella which are dissimilar from one another. 

  • Depending on pigment present in their cell, they can be red, blue, brown, yellow or green.

  • Their cell has a complex covering which is known as amphiesma, and it has flattened vesicles known as alveoli.

  • Alveoli are present in the plasma membrane and can contain cellulose plates that are high in silicates.

  • The cell has membrane-bound organelles like food vacuoles, mitochondria, Golgi bodies and endoplasmic reticulum.

  • Dinoflagellates’ nucleus is known as dikaryon, and its nucleus membrane has a chromosome.

  • The nucleus lacks histones and has a fibrillar appearance. 

  • DIY: Study the structure of dinoflagellate carefully. Draw a dinoflagellate diagram and label it accurately.


Characteristics of Dinoflagellates 

Dinoflagellates characteristics are as follows –

  1. Most dinoflagellates are marine planktons, but some are also found in freshwater. 

  2. Their distribution depends on the pH level, temperature and depth of the aquatic ecosystem.

  3. Their flagella are responsible for locomotion and facilitate a spinning top-like motion.

  4. A large segment of dinoflagellates is bioluminescent and tend to emit blue-green light.

  5. Dinoflagellates multiply rapidly and often lead to population explosions. 

  6. A toxin is released by the blooms, which is considered to be extremely poisonous.

  7. The toxic algal bloom is known as red tide, and the causative agent of red dinoflagellates include Karenia Brevis, Alexndrium fundraise, etc. 

  8. They possess an organelle called eyespot, which is light-sensitive and comprises lipid droplets. It helps their sense of direction concerning light.

  9. Some genera possess ocellus, which is a rare structure. 

  10. Dinoflagellates store food in the form of starch. 

  11. Pustule, which is a non-contractile vacuole, facilitates floatation and osmoregulation in dinoflagellates.

Fun Fact: Under ideal conditions, the population of dinoflagellates may reach as much as 60 million organisms for every litre of water.


Reproduction in Dinoflagellates

These organisms mostly reproduce asexually through cell division, and cysts of dinoflagellates can be found in a significant number. However, sexual reproduction is common in some genera, which are mostly anisogamous or isogamous.


Notably, dinoflagellates that reproduce sexually may go through a resting phase and turn into a hypnozygote. Also, in the cysts, hatchlings go through meiosis for producing haploid cells.

Furthermore, the lifecycle in ceratium, woloszynska and gymnodinium involves zygotic meiosis, while in case of noctiluca it involves gametic meiosis.

Dinoflagellates Bioluminescence 

Bioluminescence is a characteristic feature in over 18 genera of dinoflagellates. The feature is attributed to a chemical reaction that takes place in the organisms’ body.

During the said reaction, the light-producing biochemical luciferin is oxidised by catalytic enzyme luciferase. The reaction emits light and produces an ineffective compound called oxyluciferin.


What is noteworthy is that the reaction is dependent on pH, which means a drop in pH would drive the luciferin to bind with luciferase owing to a change in the enzyme’s shape.  However, it must also be noted that different genera of dinoflagellates may use these biochemicals in different ways.

These organisms use bioluminescence to defend themselves against predators and also to communicate with one another. 

Examples with ecosystems with bioluminescent dinoflagellates include Montego Bay, Indian River Lagoon, Puerto Rico, etc. 

Unique Feature About Dinoflagellates

There are many questions to arise for dinoflagellates. And the unique feature students can spot on these are that about its DNA structure. The DNA structure is having a crystalline form, unlike any other eukaryotes you can see. It will be seen inside the nucleus in that form. Incredible right?

In eukaryotes, some proteins help in producing chromosomes. However, for dinoflagellates these are absent. The exceptionally large size of the nucleus for them is because of the amount of DNA contained.

To keep the dinoflagellates alive, it is not possible to keep them with you. Because they need a temperature that is not too hot or too cold. Therefore most times, the side of the window is also not preferred. This is because when kept with you for a long time can make the dinoflagellates get heated up by your body temperature and die.

The Phylum Dinoflagellates Belongs

The phylum it belongs to is pyrrophyta. They are used for smoothening the food like ice cream you eat. They are having different shapes and also colours. Upon the interaction with light, they move away faster. Mostly found near water bodies. When they are giving us benefits, they also do make it harmful by carrying diseases like malaria.


The Life Cycle

The life cycle it has is called the haplontic life cycle. The reproductive process is asexual production. And this happens as binary fission. Only in the favourable condition, they break out of the shell and exist in the temporary condition. These are the areas where students do develop a curiosity level to learn more about the microscopic world.

  • During the favourable condition it is getting during population expansion and rapid growth, vegetative fission occurs. As a result, haploid schizonts that are motile have occurred. 

  • They then act as gametes and will undergo pairing and will form diploid zygotes.

  • It will then undergo the creation of a new theca.

  • The theca becomes thicker as it is formed out of the zygote. 

  • The hypno zygote formed will slowly settle down like sedimentation. 

  • And as the cycle closes the meiotic division undergone will produce the thecate and haploid motile cells.

Some of the Examples for Dinoflagellates are:

  • Gymnodinium

  • Gonyaulax

  • Alexandrium

There are reasons for considering dinoflagellates as toxic ones. This is because of the lipid-soluble toxins that are produced. And these can be either neurotoxic or haemolytic. And because of the toxicity, it can lead to several things. Some of them are mentioned below:

  • The death of birds

  • Mortality of marine mammals

  • The fish kills that happen massively

FAQs on An Overview of Dinoflagellates

1. To what category does dinoflagellates belong; autotrophic or heterotrophic?

Dinoflagellates are tiny marine species. Just like the plants on the land, in the marine system, the primary producers are dinoflagellates. Their characterisation is based on the flagella that are seen surrounding the cell. Therefore, the dinoflagellates can be 

  • Autotrophic

  • Heterotrophic

  • Parasitic

  • Symbiotic

2. Why are dinoflagellates considered toxic to humans?

Dinoflagellates are toxic to human beings. It is the neurological system of the body affected by the dinoflagellates. And the poisoning has happened are of different types:

  • Estuarine Associated Syndrome

  • Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning

  • Ciguatera Fish Poisoning

The blooms produced by these marine species cause red tides. And in a way, it is a threat to the marine system. The red tides will result in the release of toxins that are strong enough to affect the neural system.

3. Are dinoflagellates belonging to algae?

Dinoflagellates are a type of algae. They are the unicellular algae that have the ability for motion. And this is characterised by a pair of flagella. So when checking out you can see that the dinoflagellates mostly are photosynthetic. While others belong to the category of mixotrophic ones. If you want to learn more, you can visit the Vedantu website and app. 

4. What are the characteristics of dinoflagellates?

There are so many characteristics of dinoflagellates based on their structure and functionalities. They are mentioned pointwise below:

  • Small in nature.

  • They are motile.

  • Most are photosynthetic.

  • The chromosomes they possess are all condensed ones.

  • Most of them are thecate.

  • Also, they are planktonic.

They are called to be small because they all have the size of only enough to be visible through a microscope. The flagella it has helps them to be motile. The movement of the dinoflagellate causes the cell to rotate when they move the flagella.

5. How do Dinoflagellates Reproduce?

We can call the reproduction of dinoflagellates an explosion. When it comes to the part of binary fission, it multiplies and thus the reproduction process undergoes. For a 1 million population, it needs to have only at least 20 divisions. This is incredible, right? So if you are a student having the curiosity to learn more about the microscopic world, you can read from the Vedantu website and app.

6. What is the Morphology of Dinoflagellates?

Dinoflagellates are unicellular beings and have two dissimilar flagella. One of them lies around the body in a groove while the other one extends from the centre. They also come with an armour-like shell.