What are Saprophytes

I thought that this would be a simple question to answer but I soon got bogged down in definitions. A saprophyte is a kind of decomposer isn’t it? It turns out that the answer is anything but simple.

Saprophytes are first of all defined as decomposers, but afte that things start tp get complicated. Some dictionaries such as Answers.com define a saprophyte as any organism that breaks down dead organic matter and includes both bacteria and fungi as saprophytes. Other dictionaries, such as the Columbia dictionary have a much narrower definition, restricting the term to any plant that breaks down dead material. (see http://www.answers.com/topic/saprophyte for the different definitions).<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

In my opinion since phyte means plant, the word saprophyte should be restricted to plants that break down dead organic matter Even though both bacteria and fungi are called saprophytes in the literature, the term should probably be restricted to fungi because there is no way that most bacteria can qualify as plants: They have no nuclei in their cells, no chloroplasts (except blue green algae and they are not decomposers) and they have no cell wall. There is a problem with fungi too because they have long been classed in their own phylum and not as plants at all. However fungi are closer in many ways to plants than animals or bacteria. Most importantly, fungi have a cell wall. which is something not found in the animal kingdom at all. From this point of view, fungi can be considered plants as well as decomposers and therefore can be called saprophytes, while bacteria are merely decomposers.

The issue is further muddied by the use of the adjective saprophytic, which in the literature is used to mean anything that is a decomposer of dead plant material. Thus there are insects such as termites that are described as saprophytic, meaning that they break down dead plant material (although it is actually their symbiotic bacteria that are doing the breaking down and not the termites themselves). The term saprophytic has also been applied to some higher plants such as orchids although further research has shown, again, that it is not the plants that are doing the breaking down but symbiotic fungi working with the orchids.

The word saprophyte therefore has been used in two very different contexts: to mean organisms that break down dead plant matter and to mean plants that break down organic matter. I think it should be probably be restricted to fungi and that other organisms should simply be called decomposers. However if fungi are NOT plants then there is probably no such thing as a saprophyte. Confused? Me too. Maybe we should just stick to the word decomposer and let it go at that.