Sporozoa – Definition, Examples, Classification and Characteristics

What is Sporozoa?

  • Sporozoa, also known as Apicomplexa in some books, is a large subphylum or class (depending on the classification system) of unicellular, intracellular parasites. This diverse group comprises over 65,000 species with varying morphological characteristics. As strict parasites, they are responsible for causing various diseases in human beings, such as Malaria, Babesiosis, and Cyclosporiasis, among others.
  • One of the key features of Sporozoa is their complex life cycle, which involves alternating between sexual and asexual stages and requires two hosts, one vertebrate and one invertebrate. This intricate life cycle contributes to their ability to thrive and spread among different host species.
  • The subphylum Sporozoa, or Apicomplexa, was proposed by German zoologist Karl Georg Friedrich Rudolf Leuckart in 1879. However, in modern taxonomic schemes, the term Apicomplexa is more commonly used. Organisms belonging to this group are characterized by possessing a unique organelle called an apical complex.
  • Sporozoa are single-celled and non-motile, meaning they do not have the ability to move independently. Instead, they rely on their hosts for transportation and dissemination. Moreover, these organisms are spore-forming, allowing them to develop specialized structures that help them survive in adverse conditions and facilitate transmission to new hosts.
  • Some well-known examples of organisms in the Sporozoa group include Coccidia, Piroplasms, Malaria parasites (Plasmodium), and Haemoproteus. Plasmodium falciparum, a species of Malaria parasite, is particularly notorious for causing one of the most widespread and deadly human diseases, Malaria.
  • In the past, the protozoan phylum in which Sporozoa belonged was part of the old five-kingdom classification scheme, along with flagellates, amoeboids, and ciliates. However, this classification system is no longer commonly used, and the modern taxonomy places these organisms within the Kingdom Protista.
  • In summary, Sporozoa (Apicomplexa) is a group of unicellular, intracellular parasites responsible for causing various diseases in humans and other animals. They are characterized by their complex life cycles, which involve two hosts and alternating sexual and asexual stages. These organisms are non-motile and spore-forming, and some of the most well-known examples include Malaria parasites and Coccidia.

Short Definition of Sporozoa

Sporozoa are unicellular, parasitic organisms that undergo complex life cycles involving two hosts and alternating between sexual and asexual stages.

Classification of Sporozoa 

  • Sporozoa is a subphylum within the kingdom Protozoa, which comprises single-celled eukaryotes that can exist as parasites or free-living organisms. Sporozoa is a unique group as it exclusively consists of parasitic protozoa. These organisms are characterized by their ability to live inside host cells and cause a variety of diseases. Sporozoa exhibit complex life cycles, often involving two hosts, and can alternate between sexual and asexual reproduction in different stages of their life cycle.
  • As members of the subphylum Sporozoa, these parasitic protozoa play a significant role in human and animal health, being responsible for diseases such as Malaria, Babesiosis, and Cyclosporiasis. Their parasitic lifestyle and intricate life cycles have made them a subject of scientific interest and have driven efforts to understand and combat the diseases they cause.
  • In summary, the classification of Sporozoa places them within the kingdom Protozoa as a distinct subphylum consisting exclusively of parasitic protozoa with complex life cycles involving multiple hosts and alternating reproductive strategies.
Coccidia oocysts in a fecal flotation from a ca
Coccidia oocysts in a fecal flotation from a cat by Joel Mills / CC BY-SA (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)

Characteristics of Sporozoa

  • Endoparasitic Nature: All sporozoans are endoparasites, meaning they live inside the cells of their host organisms. They have evolved to survive and thrive within the host’s body.
  • Disease-Causing Potential: Some sporozoans, like Eimeria, are capable of causing severe diseases in their hosts. For example, Eimeria can lead to coccidiosis, a serious condition affecting birds.
  • Lack of Locomotory Organelles: Sporozoa do not possess locomotory organelles such as cilia, flagella, or pseudopodia. This absence of motility contributes to their dependence on their hosts for movement and transmission.
  • Parasitic Nutrition: Sporozoans have a parasitic mode of nutrition, relying on absorptive feeding rather than phagotrophy (ingesting solid particles). They absorb nutrients from their host cells.
  • Elastic Pellicle or Cuticle: The body of sporozoans is covered with an elastic pellicle or cuticle, providing them with structural support and protection.
  • Absence of Contractile Vacuoles: Unlike some other protozoa, sporozoans lack contractile vacuoles, which are involved in osmoregulation and expelling excess water from the cell.
  • Asexual Reproduction through Multiple Fission: Sporozoans reproduce asexually through a process called multiple fission, where the nucleus undergoes multiple divisions to produce multiple daughter cells.
  • Sexual Reproduction through Syngamy: Sporozoans also undergo sexual reproduction through syngamy, where two gametes fuse to form a zygote, initiating the sexual phase of their life cycle.
  • Two Phases in Life Cycle: The life cycle of sporozoans typically consists of two distinct phases – asexual and sexual. These phases may be completed within a single host (monogenetic) or involve two different hosts (digenetic).
  • Apical Complex: According to the Levine et al. classification, sporozoans possess a unique set of structures known as the apical complex. This complex helps them attach to and penetrate host cells, contributing to their parasitic lifestyle.
  • Production of Sporozoites: Most sporozoans produce sporozoites at some point in their life cycle. Sporozoites are the motile and infective forms of the organisms responsible for causing diseases in the host.
  • Surface Proteins and Pathogenicity: Molecular studies have revealed that the surface proteins of sporozoans are GPI-anchored. These proteins play a role in the pathogenicity of parasites, contributing to the clinical symptoms of the diseases they cause. For example, Plasmodium falciparum’s surface protein complex is involved in its virulence and disease manifestation in malaria.

Motility of Sporozoa

  • The motility of Sporozoa is unique among protozoa, as they do not possess flagella or cilia for locomotion. Instead, sporozoans rely on gliding, twisting, and bending movements to move within their environment.
  • Gliding is the primary mode of active displacement for sporozoans. It involves the backward translocation of a junction between the surface of the organism and a substrate along the longitudinal axis of the zoite (mature form of sporozoans). This gliding action allows them to move across surfaces and facilitates their penetration of host cells.
  • During gliding, sporozoans leave trails of circumsporozoite protein on the surface they move across. These protein trails are considered evidence of gliding motility among Sporozoa parasites and are widely accepted as a characteristic feature of their movement.
  • Additionally, gliding in sporozoans is associated with a phenomenon known as capping. The parasites aggregate surface molecules and then release them at the posterior pole, contributing to their gliding movement. This gliding ability is crucial for the intracellular lifestyle of sporozoans, as it enables them to penetrate host cells and establish themselves within the host’s body.
  • For example, in the case of malaria parasites, they use actin-dependent motors to move the annular junction backward over their surface, leading to the capping of surface molecules. This gliding motion facilitates the penetration of the malaria parasite into the host’s red blood cells.
  • When observed under a microscope, the gliding action of sporozoans is characterized by the creation of undulating ridges or waves in their membrane. These movements are essential for their survival, dissemination, and establishment within the host’s tissues.
  • In conclusion, sporozoans demonstrate a remarkable gliding motility, relying on unique mechanisms for movement that do not involve flagella or cilia. Their ability to glide, twist, and bend allows them to move across surfaces, penetrate host cells, and maintain their intracellular lifestyle.

Feeding of Sporozoa

  • Sporozoa, being simple organisms, lack specialized feeding organs and digestive systems. As a result, they heavily rely on osmosis to absorb nutrients from their environment, particularly within the host cell where they reside as endoparasites. The sources of nutrition for these organisms include dissolved cytoplasm, dissolved food material, tissue fluids, and other fluid nutrients available in the host cell.
  • In some cases, feeding in sporozoans involves a process known as phagocytosis, where the organism surrounds and engulfs food particles. However, this method is not common among all species, and osmosis remains the primary mode of nutrient absorption for most sporozoans.
  • While sporozoans lack many of the organelles found in other eukaryotic organisms, they have been shown to possess micropores. These micropores are small openings or structures on their surface that might play a role in nutrient uptake or other functions.
  • It’s important to note that some sporozoans, such as the schizonts of Plasmodium and other parasites, are capable of phagotrophy. This means they can engulf food particles through phagocytic nutrition, providing an additional means of obtaining nutrients, especially during specific stages of their life cycle.
  • In summary, sporozoans rely primarily on osmosis to absorb nutrients from their host cell environment. While some species can utilize phagocytosis to engulf food particles, this method is not as prevalent as osmotic nutrient absorption. Despite their simplicity and lack of specialized feeding organs, sporozoans have adapted to extract essential nutrients for their survival and reproduction from the resources available within their host cells.

Types of Spores

Sporozoans, a group of parasitic protozoa, can be classified into four categories based on their general spore morphology:

  1. Apicomplexan: Sporozoans belonging to this group form unique oocysts, which are protective structures that contain the infective form of the parasite called sporozoites. Oocysts are responsible for the transmission of the parasite to new hosts. The Apicomplexan group includes well-known parasites like Plasmodium, the causative agent of Malaria.
  2. Microsporan: Sporozoans in the Microsporan group produce unicellular spores that contain coiled polar tubes. These polar tubes play a crucial role in infecting new host cells by aiding in penetration. Microsporans are parasites that infect various organisms, including insects and other invertebrates.
  3. Haplosporidian: The Haplosporidian group is characterized by producing unicellular spores that lack polar filaments within the tissues of aquatic invertebrates. Haplosporidians are often found in marine environments and can be harmful to shellfish and other marine organisms.
  4. Paramyxean: Sporozoans in the Paramyxean group have a unique spore-within-spore arrangement. This means their spores contain an inner spore within an outer spore, providing added protection and complexity. Paramyxean parasites infect various aquatic organisms, including fish and crustaceans.

These four groups represent different spore morphologies found within the Sporozoa subphylum. Each type of spore aids in the survival, transmission, and infectivity of the respective parasites in their specific ecological niches. Understanding the diversity of spore types in Sporozoa is crucial in studying their life cycles, host interactions, and strategies for disease transmission.

Reproduction of Sporozoa

Reproduction in Sporozoa is characterized by a complex life cycle that involves alternating between sexual and asexual stages. This unique reproductive strategy sets them apart from the majority of other protozoa.

  1. Sexual and Asexual Cycles: Sporozoans undergo both sexual and asexual reproduction during their life cycle. The sexual process involves the formation of gametes of opposite sexes, which may be structurally similar or different depending on the species.
  2. Gamete Formation: Different processes are involved in the formation and production of gametes in different species. In some Sporozoans, like Gregarinina, the division of gamonts results in the production of gametes. However, in others, like Coccidiomorpha, gametogenesis occurs when macrogametes produce growing gamonts.
  3. Fertilization and Zygote Formation: The gametes, produced by gametocytes, unite to form a zygote. In some species, the male and female gametes can be distinguished by size and shape, while in others, they may be indistinguishable. Fertilization occurs when the microgamete penetrates the macrogamete.
  4. Sporogony: The zygote formed after fertilization goes through sporogony to form sporozoites within oocysts. Sporogony may involve simple division of the zygote or multiple divisions, depending on the species. Sporozoites are the infective forms that penetrate host cells and cause disease.
  5. Asexual Reproduction (Schizogony): Within the host cells, the sporozoites (referred to as trophozoites at this stage) can undergo asexual reproduction through a process known as schizogony. During schizogony, the nucleus undergoes division to form a multinuclear schizont, which then undergoes segmentation to form individual merozoites. Some of these merozoites continue asexual reproduction, while others develop into gamonts involved in sexual reproduction.
  6. Formation of Protective Spores: During the metagamic period of their life cycle, some Sporozoa can form spores with a protective covering. This form of the parasite allows them to survive unfavorable environmental conditions for extended periods. The spores play a crucial role in the transmission and persistence of the parasite in the environment.

In summary, the reproductive cycle of Sporozoa is intricate, involving both sexual and asexual phases. The formation of gametes, zygote development, and sporozoite production contribute to their complex life cycle, enabling them to adapt to diverse environments and ensure their survival and transmission to new hosts.

Examples of Sporozoans

  1. Plasmodium: Plasmodium is one of the most well-known and medically significant examples of Sporozoa. It is responsible for causing Malaria, a widespread and deadly disease that affects millions of people worldwide. Plasmodium species live as endoparasites in the red blood cells of their vertebrate hosts, including humans, birds, and other animals. The life cycle of Plasmodium involves two hosts – mosquitoes act as intermediate hosts, transmitting the infective sporozoites to the vertebrate host during a blood meal.
  2. Monocystis: Monocystis is another example of Sporozoa and is a parasitic organism that infects earthworms. Monocystis lives as an endoparasite in the coelomic epithelial cells and seminal vesicles of the earthworm. Although it lives inside the reproductive organs of the earthworm, the fertility of the host is not significantly impaired, as most of the seminal vesicles remain unaffected.
  3. Eimeria: Eimeria is a genus of Sporozoa that includes various species known to cause coccidiosis, a disease affecting birds and other animals. Two notable examples of Eimeria species are:
  • Eimeria mitis: This species acts as an intracellular parasite in the anterior part of the ileum of adult birds.
  • Eimeria tenella: Eimeria tenella affects the caeca (a part of the bird’s digestive system) of chickens, causing a disease known as caecal coccidiosis. The infection leads to extensive destruction of the caecal epithelium, resulting in severe hemorrhage and potentially fatal consequences for the host.

These examples highlight the diversity and impact of Sporozoa in the natural world. They demonstrate the ability of these parasitic organisms to infect various host species, causing a range of diseases that can have significant consequences for both humans and animals. Understanding these examples is crucial for effective disease control and management strategies.


What are sporozoans?

Sporozoans are a group of unicellular, parasitic protozoa belonging to the subphylum Sporozoa. They are known for their complex life cycles, alternating between sexual and asexual stages, and are responsible for causing various diseases in humans and animals.

How do sporozoans reproduce?

Sporozoans reproduce through both sexual and asexual cycles. The sexual process involves the formation of opposite-sex gametes, which unite to form a zygote. The zygote then undergoes sporogony to produce infective sporozoites. Asexual reproduction occurs through processes like schizogony, where the nucleus divides to form multiple daughter cells.

What diseases do sporozoans cause?

Sporozoans are responsible for several significant diseases, including Malaria (caused by Plasmodium), Coccidiosis (caused by Eimeria), Babesiosis, and Toxoplasmosis, among others.

How do sporozoans move?

Unlike many other protozoa, sporozoans lack flagella or cilia for movement. They rely on gliding, twisting, and bending movements to move within their host’s cells or along surfaces.

What is the significance of the apical complex in sporozoans?

The apical complex is a unique set of structures found in sporozoans, enabling them to attach and penetrate host cells during their life cycle. It plays a crucial role in the pathogenesis of these parasites.

How do sporozoans feed?

Sporozoans have a parasitic mode of nutrition, relying on osmosis to absorb nutrients from their environment. Some species may also utilize phagocytosis to engulf food particles.

What are some examples of sporozoans?

Some examples of sporozoans include Plasmodium (causing Malaria), Eimeria (causing coccidiosis in birds), and Toxoplasma (causing Toxoplasmosis).

Do sporozoans have locomotory organelles?

No, sporozoans lack locomotory organelles such as flagella, cilia, or pseudopodia. They depend on gliding, bending, and twisting movements for motility.

How do sporozoans survive adverse conditions?

During the metagamic phase of their life cycle, sporozoans can form spores with a protective covering. These spores allow them to survive unfavorable environmental conditions for extended periods, contributing to their transmission and persistence.

Are sporozoans harmful to humans?

Yes, many sporozoans are harmful to humans and animals as they cause diseases. Malaria, caused by Plasmodium species, is one of the most significant and deadly diseases affecting humans and is transmitted through the bite of infected mosquitoes.


  1. https://www.microscopemaster.com/sporozoa.html
  2. https://www.biologydiscussion.com/protozoa-2/
  3. https://www.biologyonline.com/dictionary/sporozoa
  4. https://theodora.com/encyclopedia/s2/sporozoa.html
  5. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8937844_Apicomplexan_gliding_motility_and_host_cell_invasion_Overhauling_the_motor_model

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