Stramenopiles: Diatoms, Brown Algae, Golden Algae and Oomycetes


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The illustration shows an egg-shaped stramenopile cell. Protruding from the narrow end of the cell is one hairless flagellum and one hairy flagellum.
Stramenopile flagella. This stramenopile cell has a single hairy flagellum and a secondary smooth flagellum. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

The other subgroup of chromalveolates, the stramenopiles, includes photosynthetic marine algae and heterotrophic protists. The chloroplast of these algae is derived from red alga. The identifying feature of this group is the presence of a textured, or “hairy,” flagellum. Many stramenopiles also have an additional flagellum that lacks hair-like projections. Members of this subgroup range in size from single-celled diatoms to the massive and multicellular kelp.

The diatoms are unicellular photosynthetic protists that encase themselves in intricately patterned, glassy cell walls composed of silicon dioxide in a matrix of organic particles. These protists are a component of freshwater and marine plankton. Most species of diatoms reproduce asexually, although some instances of sexual reproduction and sporulation also exist. Some diatoms exhibit a slit in their silica shell, called a raphe. By expelling a stream of mucopolysaccharides from the raphe, the diatom can attach to surfaces or propel itself in one direction.

This micrograph shows translucent blue diatoms, which range widely in size and shape. Many are tube- or diamond-shaped. One is disk-shaped with a visible hub. Another looks like a disk viewed from the end, with grooves in it.
Diatoms. Assorted diatoms, visualized here using light microscopy, live among annual sea ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Diatoms range in size from 2 to 200 µm. (credit: Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University, NSF, NOAA)

During periods of nutrient availability, diatom populations bloom to numbers greater than can be consumed by aquatic organisms. The excess diatoms die and sink to the sea floor where they are not easily reached by saprobes that feed on dead organisms. As a result, the carbon dioxide that the diatoms had consumed and incorporated into their cells during photosynthesis is not returned to the atmosphere. Along with rhizarians and other shelled protists, diatoms help to maintain a balanced carbon cycle.

Like diatoms, golden algae are largely unicellular, although some species can form large colonies. Their characteristic gold color results from their extensive use of carotenoids, a group of photosynthetic pigments that are generally yellow or orange in color. Golden algae are found in both freshwater and marine environments, where they form a major part of the plankton community.

The brown algae are primarily marine, multicellular organisms that are known colloquially as seaweeds. Giant kelps are a type of brown alga. Some brown algae have evolved specialized tissues that resemble terrestrial plants, with root-like holdfasts, stem-like stipes, and leaf-like blades that are capable of photosynthesis. The stipes of giant kelps are enormous, extending in some cases for 60 meters. Like the green algae, brown algae have a variety of life cycles, including alternation of generations. In the brown algae genus Laminaria, haploid spores develop into multicellular gametophytes, which produce haploid gametes that combine to produce diploid organisms that then become multicellular organisms with a different structure from the haploid form.

The life cycle of the brown algae, Laminaria, begins when sporangia undergo meiosis, producing 1 n zoospores. The zoospores undergo mitosis, producing multicellular male and female gametophytes. The female gametophyte produces eggs, and the male gametophyte produces sperm. The sperm fertilizes the egg, producing a 2 n zygote. The zygote undergoes mitosis, producing a multicellular sporophyte. The mature sporophyte produces sporangia, completing the cycle. A photo inset shows the sporophyte stage, which resembles a plant with long, flat blade-like leaves attached to green stalks via bladder like connections. Both the blade and stalks are submerged. Sporangia are associated with the leaf like structures.
Alternation of generations in a brown alga. Several species of brown algae, such as the Laminaria shown here, have evolved life cycles in which both the haploid (gametophyte) and diploid (sporophyte) forms are multicellular. The gametophyte is different in structure than the sporophyte. (credit “laminaria photograph”: modification of work by Claire Fackler, CINMS, NOAA Photo Library)

The water molds, oomycetes (“egg fungus”), were so-named based on their fungus-like morphology, but molecular data have shown that the water molds are not closely related to fungi. The oomycetes are characterized by a cellulose-based cell wall and an extensive network of filaments that allow for nutrient uptake. As diploid spores, many oomycetes have two oppositely directed flagella (one hairy and one smooth) for locomotion. The oomycetes are nonphotosynthetic and include many saprobes and parasites. The saprobes appear as white fluffy growths on dead organisms. Most oomycetes are aquatic, but some parasitize terrestrial plants. One plant pathogen is Phytophthora infestans, the causative agent of late blight of potatoes, such as occurred in the nineteenth century Irish potato famine.

The photo shows a mucous-like mass, covered in white fuzz, hanging from a rock.
Oomycetes. A saprobic oomycete engulfs a dead insect. (credit: modification of work by Thomas Bresson)


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: