What is a saprophyte?

Saprophytes secrete enzymes that help break down fallen leaves.

The term saprophyte refers to the type of food that a living organism eats. Sapro means rotten in Greek and phyte means plant, so a saprophyte eats dead organic matter. Some bacteria, many plants, and most fungi are saprophytes. These organisms can convert dead organic matter into forms that are easier for other organisms to metabolize, making them essential for maintaining a healthy environment. They are also called saprobes.

Fungi are an example of saprophytes.

Saprophytes are beneficial to the environment as they decompose dead plants and animals. The energy and organic material in the dead and decaying organic material can then be converted into recycled energy and nutrients. Saprophytes are also part of a larger group of organisms called heterotrophs, meaning they must obtain nutrients from the environment. They cannot produce their own nutrients, unlike other organisms that can harvest energy from processes such as photosynthesis.

Some fungi are saprophytic. They eat the dead material and turn it into carbon dioxide, nutrients that help make more fungi and other organic molecules. The excess of organic molecules produced by the saprophyte is released into the environment and these substances enrich the soil. Some of these molecules are organic acids, which are not easily broken down and can remain in the soil for centuries.

A saprophyte can usually eat substances such as cellulose and lignin from wood, which are indigestible to many organisms. The molecules that fungi produce are in a form that is easier for other organisms to use. Fungi usually grow as long, thin filaments that stick out because covering more ground allows cells to find more organic matter to eat. Saprophytic fungi are also used in cheese making and some, such as Penicillium notatum, even produce antibiotics. Most saprophytic fungi do not cause disease in humans.

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Bacteria are also separated into groups depending on where they get their nutrients. A saprophytic bacterial species plays a similar role to fungal species in nutrient recycling. The bacteria that live in the stomachs of animals and break down dead organic matter are called symbiotes rather than saprophytes.

Certain plants are saprophytes. This includes some species of orchids. Several plants that reproduce by sending spores are saprophytic during one stage of their life cycles. Some saprophytic plants don’t even look like plants. For example, the monotropoid subfamily may look like mushrooms, although it still has flowers.

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