The Excavata


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(a) This illustration of a Euglena shows the characteristic structures, such as the stigma and flagellum. (b) The pellicle, under the cell membrane, gives the cell its distinctive shape and is visible in this image as delicate parallel striations over the surface of the entire cell (especially visible over the grey contractile vacuole). (credit a: modification of work by Claudio Miklos; credit b: modification of work by David Shykind)

OpenStax Microbiology

Excavata includes primitive eukaryotes and many parasites with limited metabolic abilities. These organisms have complex cell shapes and structures, often including a depression on the surface of the cell called an excavate. The group Excavata includes the subgroups Fornicata, Parabasalia, and Euglenozoa. The Fornicata lack mitochondria but have flagella. This group includes Giardia lamblia (also known as G. intestinalis or G. duodenalis), a widespread pathogen that causes diarrheal illness and can be spread through cysts from feces that contaminate water supplies. Parabasalia are frequent animal endosymbionts; they live in the guts of animals like termites and cockroaches. They have basal bodies and modified mitochondria (kinetoplastids). They also have a large, complex cell structure with an undulating membrane and often have many flagella. The trichomonads (a subgroup of the Parabasalia) include pathogens such as Trichomonas vaginalis, which causes the human sexually transmitted disease trichomoniasis. Trichomoniasis often does not cause symptoms in men, but men are able to transmit the infection. In women, it causes vaginal discomfort and discharge and may cause complications in pregnancy if left untreated.

The Euglenozoa are common in the environment and include photosynthetic and nonphotosynthetic species. Members of the genus Euglena are typically not pathogenic. Their cells have two flagella, a pellicle, a stigma (eyespot) to sense light, and chloroplasts for photosynthesis. The pellicle of Euglena is made of a series of protein bands surrounding the cell; it supports the cell membrane and gives the cell shape.

The Euglenozoa also include the trypanosomes, which are parasitic pathogens. The genus Trypanosoma includes T. brucei, which causes African trypanosomiasis (African sleeping sickness and T. cruzi, which causes American trypanosomiasis (Chagas disease). These tropical diseases are spread by insect bites. In African sleeping sickness, T. brucei colonizes the blood and the brain after being transmitted via the bite of a tsetse fly (Glossina spp.). The early symptoms include confusion, difficulty sleeping, and lack of coordination. Left untreated, it is fatal.

Trypanosoma brucei, the causative agent of African trypanosomiasis, spends part of its life cycle in the tsetse fly and part in humans. (credit “illustration”: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; credit “photo”: DPDx/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Chagas’ disease originated and is most common in Latin America. The disease is transmitted by Triatoma spp., insects often called “kissing bugs,” and affects either the heart tissue or tissues of the digestive system. Untreated cases can eventually lead to heart failure or significant digestive or neurological disorders.

The genus Leishmania includes trypanosomes that cause disfiguring skin disease and sometimes systemic illness as well.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: