Ciliates form the largest and the most homogenous group of protozoans. They are placed under one phylum Ciliophora and evidence indicates that its members share a common evolutionary history. There are more than 7200 species found in fresh and marine waters and the water film of soil. About one third of ciliates are ecto and endoparasites or commensals. The classic example of this phylum is the slipper shaped Paramecium. Other well known examples are Vorticella, Stentor, Didinium, Balantidium.
Figure: Various ciliates. Vorlieella and Stentor sessile ciliates, Stentor can also release itself and swim about. Didinium a raptoral ciliate Tetrahymena, Acineta with bunches of tentacles.
All ciliates possess cilia for locomotion and for suspension feeding. Another (Organization) distinguishing feature is the presence of kinetosomes (ciliary basal body) and an associated complex anchorage system of fibrils connecting the kinetosomes in longitudinal rows. All of these make the subsurface ciliature or infraciliary system. Most ciliates have a mouth or cytostome and feed by sweeping particle laden water into the mouth. The cytostome and cytopharynx open into the food vacuole and undigested remains are expelled through a fixed spot. Another characteristic feature is the presence of 2 types of nuclei. One large macronucleus and one or more small micronuclei. The macronucleus is called the vegetative nucleus as it regulates the normal metabolic processes of the organism for mitotic division and for control of cellular differentiation.
It is required for protein synthesis. The amount of DNA that macronucleus contains is much more than what is present in micronucleus because of duplications following the formation of macronucleus from the micronucleus. The micronucleus on the other hand is small and rounded. It is diploid and more than one may be present, with little RNA. The micronucleus contains the genetic material responsible for genetic exchange during sexual reproduction and also for reforming the macronucleus. Ciliates reproduce asexually by transverse fission and sexually through conjugation which involves the exchange and fusion of micronuclei at the region of contact.