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Feeding in Ciliated Protozoa


The ciliate Euplotes is able to expend a very large amount of membrane in the formation of food vacuoles. Calculations based on the rate of ingestion of the food organism Tetrahymena indicate that an amount of food vacuole membrane equivalent to approximately 50-150% of the total Euplotes cell surface area can be produced within 5-10 min. An aggregation of osmiophilic, membrane-limited ‘pharyngeal disks’ is found packed in the cytoplasm just beneath the cell surface membrane in the region of the cell mouth and cytopharynx. These disks, which can be seen also in living cells, have average dimensions of 2 µm diameter by 100 nm thickness, and contain tightly packed layers of a thin lamellar material. Electron micrographs have revealed the apparent fusion of the limiting membrane of disks with the cell's plasma membrane at the base of the gullet. The lamellar disk contents are thereby released to the exterior medium in the buccal cavity, where they form a loosely packed layer over the surface membrane. It is postulated that the pharyngeal disks represent a repository of preformed membrane for use in food vacuole formation. The disk contents may also play a role in food ingestion, although this is not well defined at present. The myeloid content of old food vacuoles is very similar to that of nearby disks in the cytoplasm, suggesting that the disks may form by pinching from shrinking food vacuoles during the digestive cycle. Thus a cycle of membrane flow is envisaged, with the pharyngeal disks (1) coalescing with the surface membrane during food vacuole formation, (2) reforming by pinching from these food vacuoles during digestion, and (3) migrating back to the oral region to serve as a membrane store for subsequent food vacuole formation.

  • Received November 9, 1973.