MAY 29, 2016 5:51 PM PDT

Better Know a Microbe: Vampire Amoebas!

WRITTEN BY: Kerry Evans
Vampyrellids are teeny-tiny vampires. Okay, technically they’re single-celled amoebas that belong to the family Vampyrellidae. (“Teeny-tiny vampires” is way more interesting.)

These so-called “vampire amoebas” were discovered by Leon Semenowitj Cienkowski way back in 1865. They come in various shapes but are typically between 30-100 microns long. The majority are spherical with “filose pseudopods” extending from the cell body (think spheres with long spikes sticking out). The cells are free-living and live in water and soil. (Watch out for the tiny vampires under your feet!)
A vampire amoeba preys on green algae.

But, what makes them “vampires”? Unlike other amoebas that essentially engulf their prey, the vampire amoebas feed on their prey (algae, fungi, and even nematodes!) by poking holes in their cells and sucking out all the (yummy) juices. Hence, vampires.

A study from the 1920s described the process quite colorfully. First, the amoeba “spreads partly around the doomed cell”. Then, “within a minute or so the transverse walls of the attacked cell begin to bend gradually inward”. Once the amoeba pokes a hole in the “doomed cell”, the amoeba swells due to “the injection of algal cell contents into the animal through an oval opening”.

After feeding, the free-living amoebas join together and build “digestive cysts” where they digest their latest meal and also reproduce.

These vampires even made the news recently. UC Santa Barbara paleobiologist Susannah Porter reported finding tiny holes drilled into fossilized eukaryotes found near the Grand Canyon. She thinks these holes were probably made by vampire amoebas nearly 740 million years ago! (They’re even older than Dracula!)

There’s still one big unanswered question about the little vampires - how do they manage to poke holes in tough, rigid cell walls? According to Sebastian Hess at the University of Cologne, “the perforation of the cell wall … can be done in five to ten minutes … they must have a set of enzymes which can digest plant cell walls”.

The answer to this question could be very useful for companies interested in making biofuels from algae. Algae are easy to grow, but breaking down their cell walls isn’t so straightforward.

Sources: BBC, UC Santa Barbara, Science, Encyclopedia of Life, Wikipedia
About the Author
  • Kerry received a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
You May Also Like
FEB 10, 2020
FEB 10, 2020
Measles infections can give the immune system amnesia
The immune system detects the presence of invading microbes that it recognizes from previous infections, and initiates a full-blown immune response. New re...
FEB 08, 2020
FEB 08, 2020
Novel Coronavirus Has Now Infected At Least 34,500 People
In China, authorities are still struggling to contain the new coronavirus that emerged in the city of Wuhan and has since spread around the globe....
FEB 11, 2020
Clinical & Molecular DX
FEB 11, 2020
Portable device turns smartphones into diagnostic labs
Your smartphone lets you connect with friends, stores your memories, sends work emails and pays for your groceries. Soon, it could even help diagnose if yo...
FEB 17, 2020
FEB 17, 2020
Giant Viruses Blur the Line Between Life and Non-Life
Bacteriophages, also known as phages, are more complex than many viruses that we know of, and often carry large genomes....
MAR 02, 2020
Drug Discovery & Development
MAR 02, 2020
DIY Fecal Transplants Improve Symptoms in 82% of People
Fecal transplants (FMT), the process of putting a healthy person’s fecal matter into another person’s colon, has been approved as a procedure t...
MAR 24, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
MAR 24, 2020
Certain Drugs May Raise the Risk of a Severe COVID-19 Infection
ACEIs and ARBs may make coronavirus infections worse, which can help explain why older adults are faring so much worse....
Loading Comments...