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What is an amoeba?

An amoeba under a microscope
Amoeba proteus with algae filled vacuoles for food production. (Image credit: Getty Images )

The term "amoeba" refers to simple eukaryotic organisms that move in a characteristic crawling fashion. However, a comparison of the genetic content of the various amoebae shows that these organisms are not necessarily closely related.

All living organisms can be broadly divided into two groups — prokaryotes and eukaryotes — which are distinguished by the relative complexity of their cells. In contrast to prokaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells are highly organized. Bacteria and Archaea are prokaryotes, while all other living organisms are eukaryotes.

What does an amoeba look like?

All living organisms can be broadly divided into two groups — prokaryotes and eukaryotes — which are distinguished by the relative complexity of their cells. Eukaryotes are highly organized unicellular or multicellular organisms, such as animals and plants. Prokaryotes, on the other hand, are basic single-celled organisms, such as bacteria and archaea. 

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Amoebas are eukaryotes. Their single cells, like those of other eukaryotes, possess certain characteristic features: Their cytoplasm and cellular contents are enclosed within a cell membrane, and their DNA is packaged into a central cellular compartment called the nucleus, according to a research article published in the journal BMC Biology. In addition, they contain specialized structures called organelles, which perform a range of cellular functions including energy production and protein transport. 

Most of these organelles are common to all eukaryotic cells, but there are a few exceptions. For example, the parasitic amoebas Entamoeba histolytica, which cause amoebic dysentery in humans, do not have the golgi apparatus, the organelle responsible for modifying and transporting proteins, according to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Researchers found that Entamoeba histolytica instead contain golgi-like compartments or vesicles that execute similar functions. 

There are also amoebas that don’t have mitochondria (the organelle responsible for generating cellular energy) because they live in environments lacking in oxygen, or "anoxic conditions," Sutherland Maciver, a reader in the department of biomedical sciences at the University of Edinburgh, told Live Science.

According to a 2014 review published in the journal Biochemie, these organisms without mitochondria can contain organelles such as hydrogenosomes or mitosomes, which are related to mitochondria but are thought to be highly altered versions. This is the case for Entamoeba histolytica and the free-living amoebas Mastigamoeba balamuthi.

How does an amoeba move?

Structurally, amoebas closely resemble the cells of higher organisms. "They are like our cells, and in fact when they are moving they look very much like our white blood cells," Maciver said.

Like our white blood cells, amoebas move using pseudopodia (which translates to "false feet" from Latin). These short-lived outward projections of the cytoplasm help amoebas to grip a surface and propel themselves forward. According to Maciver, as the pseudopodium moves out along a surface in one direction, the back end of the amoeba contracts. "As it contracts, it does two things," he said. "The contraction pushes the cytoplasm forward to fill the expanding pseudopod, but the contraction also pulls up adhesions at the back end of the cell." Maciver describes these adhesions between an amoeba and the surface on which it moves as physical molecular adhesions, which are constantly formed at the front end and broken at the back. This movement — using pseudopodia — is a characteristic that unites various amoebas and distinguishes them from other protists (simple eukaryotic organisms like amoebas that are not plants, animals or fungi).

There are four different types of pseudopodia seen among amoebas: filopodia, lobopodia, rhizopodia and axopodia, according to Human Parasitology. The most common form of parasitic amoebas are lobopodia which are broad, blunt cytoplasmic projections, while other pseudopodia, such as filopodia, are thin, thread-like projections. Other pseudopods are supported by structural elements known as microtubules, which are responsible for executing cell movements. Rhizopodia, also known as reticulopodia, are thin filament-like projections that mesh together, and axopodia) are rigid and strengthened by an array of microbular structures called axonemes, according to Ecology and Classification of Northern American Freshwater Invertebrates.

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Amoebas can also use pseudopodia to feed. A 1995 article published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology gives the example of the soil-dwelling amoebas, Acanthamoeba castellanii, which ingest both solids and liquids using their pseudopodia. The process of ingesting solid material is called phagocytosis. "Most of the known amoebae eat bacteria," Maciver said. He explained that amoebas have receptors on their cell surface that bind to bacteria, which are gathered and taken into amoebas by phagocytosis, usually at the rear of the cell. In the case of giant amoebas (for example, Amoeba proteus), the process of phagocytosis is slightly different, according to Maciver. Giant amoebae engulf their prey "by the willful gathering of pseudopods around the bacteria." In both cases, as the bacteria is drawn in, the cell membrane that surrounds it pinches off to form an intra-cellular compartment called the vacuole. The process of engulfing drops of liquid is known as pinocytosis, also known as cell drinking, according to Dosage Form Design Considerations.

How are amoebas classified?

For centuries, the various systems of classifying organisms, including amoebas, were based on similarities in observable characteristics and morphology. "There isn't actually a coherent group of organisms called the amoebae," Maciver said. "Rather, amoebae are any protozoan cells that move by crawling."

Historically, amoebas were classified together in a single taxonomic group called Sarcodina, distinguished by their use of pseudopodia. Sarcodina amoebas were subdivided based on the type of pseudopodia, according to a 2008 article published in the journal Protistology. However, this system of classification was not illustrative of the evolutionary relationships between the various amoebas. It was not a family tree so to speak.

Molecular phylogenetics changed the course of taxonomic classification for eukaryotes especially. By comparing the similarities and differences in particular DNA sequences within organisms, scientists were able discern how closely they were related, according to a 2020 review in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Early analyses compared the DNA sequences that encode the 18S subunit of ribosomes, or "SSU rDNA " (ribosomes serve as the site for protein synthesis). Based on the analyses of SSU rDNA and other DNA sequences, eukaryotic organisms are now organized in a manner that better represents their evolutionary relationships — the phylogenetic tree, according to the 2008 Protistology article.

Each lineage in a phylogenetic tree is depicted by a branched structure. In this system, the first levels are known as "supergroups." Fabien Burki, author of a 2014 review article published in the journal Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, described these supergroups as the "building blocks" of the tree. 

Burki listed five supergroups for eukaryotic organisms: Ophiskontha, Amoebozoa, Excavata, Archaeplastida and SAR (which comprises three groups: Stramenopiles, Alveolata and Rhizaria). Animals and fungi are in the group Ophiskontha. Amoeboid protists and some parasitic lineages that lack mitochondria are part of Amoebozoa. Together, Ophiskontha and Amoebozoa form a larger supergroup called Amorphea, according to the review in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Heterotrophic protists — organisms that take in nutrients from other organisms — are part of Excavata, while plants and most other photosynthetic organisms are part of Archaeplastida, according to the Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Biology.

"If you look at the great diversity of the protists, you can see that there are amoebae in virtually all the groups, " Maciver said. "There's even an amoeboid organism within the brown algae [Labyrinthula]." According to Maciver, most amoebas are present within the Amoebozoa group. In addition, he noted that amoebas are also present within Rhizaria, Excavata, Opisthokonta (for example, Nucleariids, which have filopodia) and within the Stramenopiles (for example, Labyrinthulids).

Entamoeba histolytica is a human intestinal parasite. It can cause colitis, severe diarrhea and dysentery. (Image credit: CDC/ Dr. Mae Melvin)

Why are amoebas important?

Amoebas are known to cause a range of human diseases. Amebiasis, or amoebic dysentery, is an infection caused by Entamoeba histolytica, a human intestinal parasite, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Entamoeba histolytica can invade the colon wall and cause colitis, or can cause severe diarrhea and dysentery. Though the disease can occur anywhere in the world, it is most common in tropical regions that have substandard sanitation and crowded conditions. 

Contact lens wearers are potentially at risk of a rare infection of the cornea called Acanthamoeba keratitis. According to the CDC , species in the Acanthamoeba genus are free-living and are commonly found in soil, air and water. Poor contact lens hygiene practices, such as improper storage, handling and disinfection or swimming with lenses, are some of the risk factors for the disease. While the initial symptoms include redness, itchiness and blurred vision, if left untreated the infection will eventually lead to severe pain and can lead to the loss of vision, according to the CDC. 

Amoebas also cause different infections of the brain. Naegleria fowleri, which has been dubbed "the brain-eating amoeba," causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM). Though the disease is rare, it is almost always fatal, according to the CDC. Early symptoms include fever and vomiting, ultimately progressing to more severe symptoms such as hallucinations and coma. Naegleria fowleri is present in warm freshwater bodies such as hot springs, lakes and rivers, or in poorly chlorinated swimming pools and contaminated, hot tap water. These amoebas enter from the nose and travel to the brain. However, the infection can’t be contracted by swallowing water, according to the CDC. 

Illustration of a brain-eating amoeba

A 3D illustration of the brain-eating amoeba, Naegleria fowleri. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Another amoeba, Balamuthia mandrillaris, can cause a brain infection known as granulomatous amoebic encephalitis (GAE). Balamuthia infections are rare but are often fatal. The CDC states the death rate from infection to be 90%. Early symptoms include headaches, nausea and low-grade fever,, partial paralysis, seizures and speech difficulties. Balamuthia mandrillaris are found in the soil and can enter the body through open wounds or by breathing in contaminated dust, according to the CDC.

Amoebas can also play host to bacteria that are pathogenic to humans, and they can aid in spreading such bacteria. Bacterial pathogens such as Legionella can resist digestion when consumed by amoebas, according to an article in the journal Front Cell Infection Microbiology. Instead, they are released intact from vacuoles into an amoeba's cytoplasm, where they proliferate. In such cases, bacteria can become resistant to treatments designed to control their numbers (for example, chlorine treatment of water).

Maciver cites the example of cooling towers, where both amoebas and bacteria can grow. Cooling towers tend to expel water droplets, which passersby can breathe in. "What's known to happen on many occasions, is that we breathe in a droplet of water containing an amoeba that is full of these pathogens [Legionella]," he said. If bacteria enter the body of an immunocompromised individual in such a manner, they can ultimately infect macrophages, one of the immune system's many defensive cells. "A macrophage not only looks like an amoeba, its biochemical pathways and cell biology are quite similar," Maciver said. "So the same programmed events that allow the bacteria to escape the amoeba now operate to allow Legionella to escape the macrophage. "

Lastly, amoebas are an important part of the soil ecosystem. Amoebas predate on harmful bacteria and regulate their population in the soil, according to a study in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology. Amoebas are also important for recycling nutrients in the soil. According to Maciver, when nutrients become available they are taken up by bacteria, which "effectively lock up all the nutrients in bacterial mass." When bacteria are consumed, nutrients are released back into the soil. "If you have a cycle whereby amoeba eat bacteria, the overall effect is to increase nutrient availability for plants," Maciver said.

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