Purpose of the lesson:

The Apicomplexa (also called Apicomplexia) are a large group of parasitic protists, most of which possess a unique organelle, a type of plastidcalled an apicoplast, and an apical complex structure involved in penetrating a host's cell. They are unicellular, spore-forming, and exclusively[3]parasites of animals. Motile structures such as flagella or pseudopods are present only in certain gamete stages. This is a diverse group including organisms such as the coccidia, gregarines, piroplasms, haemogregarines, and plasmodia. Diseases caused by apicomplexan organisms include, but are not limited to:

  1. Babesiosis (Babesia)
  2. Malaria (Plasmodium)
  3. Forms of coccidiosis including:
  4. Cryptosporidiosis (Cryptosporidium parvum)
  5. Cyclosporiasis (Cyclospora cayetanensis)
  6. Isosporiasis (Isospora belli)
  7. Toxoplasmosis (Toxoplasma gondii)

The name of the taxon Apicomplexa is derived from two Latin words — apex (top) and complexus (infolds) — and refers to a set of organelles in thesporozoite. The older taxon Sporozoa was created by SChrevel in 1971 and grouped the Apicomplexa together with the Ascetosporea, Microsporidiaand Myxosporida. This grouping is no longer regarded as biologically valid and its use is discouraged.

Phylogenetic relations.

This has rarely been studied at the subclass level. Morrison using molecular date has shown that the haemosporidia are related to the gregarines and that the piroplasms and coccidians are sister groups. Other studies suggest that the haemosporidia and the piroplasma appear to be sister clades and are more closely related to the coccidians than to the gregarines. Transposons appear to be rare in this phylum but have been identified in the genera Ascogregarina and Eimeria.

General morphological features.

All members of this phylum have an infectious stage — the sporozoite — which possess three distinct structures in an apical complex. The apical complex consists of a set of spirally arrangedmicrotubules (the conoid), a secretory body (the rhoptry) and one or more polar rings. Additional slender electron-dense secretory bodies (micronemes) surrounded by one or two polar rings may also be present. It is this structure that gives the phylum its name.

A further group of spherical organelles are distributed throughout the cell rather than being localized at the apical complex and are known as the dense granules. These typically have a mean diameter of about 0.7 micrometers. Secretion of the dense-granule content takes place after parasite invasion and localization within the parasitophorous vacuole and persists for several minutes.

Other morphological findings that are common to all members of this phylum include:

  1. The nucleus is haploid.
  2. Flagellae are found only in the motile gamete. These are posteriorly directed and vary in number (usually one to three).
  3. Basal bodies are present. Although hemosporidians and piroplasmids have normal triplets of microtubules in their basal bodies and coccidians and gregarines have 9 singlets.
  4. The mitochondria have tubular cristae.
  5. A Golgi apparatus is present.
  6. Centrioles, chloroplasts, ejectile organelles and inclusions are absent.
  7. Colourless plastids are present in some species.
  8. The cell is surrounded by a pellicle of three membrane layers (the alveolar structure) penetrated by micropores.


  1. Mitosis: usually closed with an intranuclear spindle; in some species it is open at the poles
  2. Cell division: usually by schizogony
  3. Meiosis: Occurs in the zygote

Other features common to this phylum are a lack of cilia, sexual reproduction, use of micropores for feeding, movement by body flexion or gliding and the production of oocysts containing sporozoites as the infective form.

General features.

Within this phylum there are three groups — coccidians, gregarines and haemosporidians. The coccidians and gregarines appear to be relatively closely related.

Perkinsus while once considered a member of this phylum has been moved to a new phylum — Perkinsozoa.


The gregarines are generally parasites of annelids, arthropods and mollusks. They are often found in the guts of their hosts but may invade the other tissues. In the typical gregarine life cycle atrophozoite develops within a host cell into a schizont. This then divides into a number of merozoites by schizogony. The merozoites are released by lysing the host cell, which in turn invade other cells. At some point in the apicomplexan life cycle, gametocytes are formed. These are released by lysis of the host cells, which group together. Each gametocyte forms multiple gametes. The gametes fuse with another to form oocysts. The oocysts leave the host to be taken up by a new host.


In general, coccidians are parasites of vertebrates. Like gregarines, they are commonly parasites of the epithelial cells of the gut but may infect other tissues.

The coccidian lifecycle involves merogony, gametogony and sporogony. While similar to that of the gregarines it differs in zygote formation. Some trophozoites enlarge and become macrogamete, wheras others divide repeatedly to form microgametes (anisogamy). The microgametes are motile and must reach the macrogamete to fertilize it. The fertilized macrogamete forms a zygote that in its turn forms an oocyst that is normally released from the body. Syzygy, when it occurs, involves markedly anisogamous gametes. The lifecycle is typically haploid, with the only diploid stage occurring in the zygote, which is normally short-lived.

Differences between the coccidia and the gregarines

The main difference between the coccidians and the gregarines is in the gamonts. In the coccida these are small, intracellular and without epimerites or mucrons. In the gregarines these are large, extracellular and possess epimerites or mucrons.

A second difference between the coccidia and the gregarines also lies in the gamonts. In the coccidia a single gamonts becomes a macrogametocyte, whereas in the gregarines the gamonts give rise to multiple gametocytes.


The Haemosporidians have more complex lifecycles that alternate between an arthropod and a vertebrate host. The trophozoite parasitises erythrocytes or other tissues in the vertebrate host. Microgametes and macrogametes are always found in the blood. The gametes are taken up by the insect vector during a blood meal. The microgametes migrate within the gut of the insect vector and fuse with the macrogametes. The fertilized macrogamete now becomes an ookinete, which penetrates the body of the vector. The ookinete then transforms into an oocyst and divides initially by meiosis and then by mitosis (haplontic life cycle) to give rise to the sporozoites. The sporozoites escape from the oocyst and migrate within the body of the vector to the salivary glands where they are injected into the new vertebrate host when the insect vector feeds again.


All members of this phylum are parasitic and evolved from a free-living ancestor. It is presumed that this lifestyle evolved at the time of the divergence of dinoflagellates and apicomplexans.[7][8]Further evolution of this phylum has been estimated to have occurred ~800 million years ago. The oldest extant clade is thought to be the archigregarines.

Many Coccidiomorpha have an intermediate host as well as a primary host, and the evolution of hosts proceeded in different ways and at different times in these groups. For some coccidiomorphs, the original host has become the intermediate host, whereas in others it has become the definitive host. In the genera Aggregata, Atoxoplasma, Cystoisospora, Schellackia and Toxoplasma the original is now definitive, whereas in Akiba, Babesiosoma, Babesia, Haemogregarina, Haemoproteus, Hepatozoon, Karyolysus, Leucocytozoon, Plasmodium, Sarcocystis, and Theileria; the original hosts are now intermediate.

Similar strategies to increase the likelihood of transmission have evolved in multiple genera. Polyenergid oocysts and tissue cysts are found in representatives of the orders Protococcidiorida andEimeriida. Hypnozoites are found in Karyolysus lacerate and most species of Plasmodium; transovarial transmission of parasites occurs in lifecycles of Karyolysus and Babesia.

Horizontal gene transfer appears to have occurred early on in this phylum's evolution with the transfer of a histone H4 lysine 20 (H4K20) modifier, Set8, from an animal host to the ancestor of apicomplexans.[10] A second gene — H3K36 methyltransferase (Ashr3 in plants) — may have also be horizontally transferred.

Life cycle[edit]

Further information: Apicomplexa lifecycle stages

Generic life cycle of an apicomplexa: 1-zygote (cyst), 2-sporozoites, 3-merozoites, 4-gametocytes.

Apicomplexan structure: 1-polar ring, 2-conoid, 3-micronemes, 4-rhoptries, 5-nucleus, 6-nucleolus, 7-mitochondria, 8-posterior ring, 9-alveoli, 10-golgi apparatus, 11-micropore.

Most members have a complex life-cycle, involving both asexual and sexual reproduction. Typically, a host is infected via an active invasion by the parasites (similar to entosis), which divide to produce sporozoites that enter its cells. Eventually, the cells burst, releasing merozoites, which infect new cells. This may occur several times, until gamonts are produced, forming gametes that fuse to create new cysts. There are many variations on this basic pattern, however, and many Apicomplexa have more than one host.

The apical complex includes vesicles called rhoptries and micronemes, which open at the anterior of the cell. These secrete enzymes that allow the parasite to enter other cells. The tip is surrounded by a band of microtubules, called the polar ring, and among the Conoidasida there is also a funnel of tubulin proteins called the conoid.[11] Over the rest of the cell, except for a diminished mouth called the micropore, the membrane is supported by vesicles called alveoli, forming a semi-rigid pellicle.

The presence of alveoli and other traits place the Apicomplexa among a group called the alveolates. Several related flagellates, such as Perkinsus andColpodella, have structures similar to the polar ring and were formerly included here, but most appear to be closer relatives of the dinoflagellates. They are probably similar to the common ancestor of the two groups.

Another similarity is that many apicomplexan cells contain a single plastid, called the apicoplast, surrounded by either 3 or four membranes. Its functions are thought to include tasks such as lipid and heme biosynthesis, and it appears to be necessary for survival. In general, plastids are considered to have a common origin with the chloroplasts of dinoflagellates, and evidence points to an origin from red algae rather than green.

The Apicomplexa comprise the bulk of what used to be called the Sporozoa, a group for parasitic protozoans without flagella, pseudopods, or cilia. Most of the Apicomplexa are motile, however. The other main lines were the Ascetosporea, the Myxozoa (now known to be derived from animals), and theMicrosporidia (now known to be derived from fungi). Sometimes the name Sporozoa is taken as a synonym for the Apicomplexa, or occasionally as a subset.

Blood-borne genera [edit]

Within the Apicomplexa there are three suborders of parasites.

  1. suborder Adeleorina — 8 genera
  2. suborder Haemosporina — all genera in this suborder
  3. suborder Eimeriorina — 2 genera (Lankesterella and Schellackia)

Within the Adelorina are species that infect invertebrates and others that infect vertebrates.

The Haemosporina includes the malaria parasites and their relatives.

The Eimeriorina — the largest suborder in this phylum — the lifecycle involves both sexual and asexual stages. The asexual stages reproduce by schizogony. The male gametocyte produces a large number of gametes and the zygote gives rise to an oocyst, which is the infective stage. The majority are monoxenous (infect one host only) but a few are heteroxenous (lifecycle involves two or more hosts).