Facts About Saprophytes

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Saprophytes, though struggle for their very existence and depend on the dead organs, they play a vital role in the ecosystems.

Facts about Saprophytes

Saprophytes are living organisms that obtain nutrients from dead organic matter and act as decomposers competing with the heavy rainfall that constantly washes away nutrients on the forests floor. The term saprophyte is usually referred to saprophytic fungi or saprophytic bacteria.

Before dwelling in detail what is a saprophyte, it is useful to have a clear-cut definition for saprophyte.

“Saprophyte is an organism, especially a fungus or bacterium that grows on and derives its nourishment from dead or decaying organic matter.”(American Heritage Medical Dictionary)

“An organism that lives on organic matter” (Mosby’s Medical Dictionary)

In a way the term ‘saprophytes’ is a misnomer because, ‘phytes’ means ‘plants’, but saprophytes describes organisms feeding on decaying organic matter and generally the term refers to fungi and bacteria with such feeding behavior and they cannot be considered as plants.

Therefore, saprophytes thrive or depend on other dead or decaying organic matter. However, saprophytes have their own characteristics that force them to depend on other dead or decaying organic matter.

Characteristics of Saprophytes:

  • Saprophytes have no leaves, stems and roots.
  • They have no leaves mean they have no chlorophyll that plays a vital role in the process of photosynthesis and so they do not manufacture their own food.
  • They are heterotrophic.
  • They derive their energy from a saprophytic or a parasitic existence.
  • They are mostly unicellular
  • They are amoeboid
  • They are filamentous.
  • They reproduce by sexual or asexual spore formation or simply by division.

Therefore, Saprophytes have to necessarily depend on rotten plants for their food.


Fungi and bacteria are generally referred to as saprophytes

As far as fungi are concerned there are as many as 6,000,000 species in the world, of which only 5000 varieties have been catalogued.

Some other plants by their dependence on living plants for their food and energy are parasitic in nature and some such common plants are:

  • Bromeliads
  • Buttress Roots
  • Carnivorous plants: Venus Fly trap and Pitcher Plant
  • Epiphytes that grow everywhere
  • Lianas
  • Orchids
  • Stilt roots
  • Strangler fig

The above plants, though technically may not be called as saprophytes, are by nature parasitic and do not prepare their own food; they depend on other plants for their very existence.

The Role of Saprophytes:

Saprophytes play an important role in soil biology. They break down dead and decaying organic matter into simple substances that can be taken up and recycled by plants.

Saprophytes act as efficient decomposers with the warmth and wetness which help to accelerate to decompose and break down dead animals and vegetations within 24 hours.

Decayed matters contain essential nutrients like iron, calcium, potassium and phosphorous necessary for the rain forests growth. Saprophytes as decomposers continuously work to release these and other elements into the soil.

Saprophytic fungi use enzymes to decompose biologic material. Parasitic fungi destroy bacteria and other pathogens.

Use of Saprophytes:

Fleshy and colorless parts of the fungi are called mushrooms and they are useful in many ways:

  • Mushrooms are known for their nutrient value and so they are edible.
  • Mushrooms are also known for their medicinal value.
  • Fungi play a vital role in maintaining a healthy eco-system. Of the three groups of fungi:
  1. Fungi, which form a symbiosis with the host plant, are known as mycorrhizal mushrooms;
  2. Fungi that act on the living plants are called as parasitic mushrooms.
  3. Fungi that decompose and recycle the dead plant material are known as saprophytic mushrooms.

Mycorrhizal Mushrooms maintain a mutual relationship with the host plant and helps the growth of host plant, by increasing the plant’s absorption of nutrients, nitrogenous compounds and other essential elements like phosphorous, copper and zinc. Therefore, forests health is directly related to the abundant presence of Mycorrhizal Mushrooms.The mutual dependence between the host and the mushroom and this helping process is known as symbiosis.

Parasitic mushrooms are harmful to the forests. Some popularly known edible parasitic mushrooms are Honey Mushroom and Armillaria mellea.

Most of the gourmet mushrooms are saprophytic and they act as the primary recyclers of the planet. Ecosystem is benefited by the decomposition of the dead plants resulting in return of Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and minerals back into the eco-system in usable form by the plants and other living beings.

Thus saprophytes though struggle for their very existence play a vital role in the ecosystem.












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