Difference Between Saprophytes and Parasites

Main Difference – Saprophytes vs Parasites

Saprophytes and parasites are two life forms that follow a heterotrophic mode of nutrition. That means both saprophytes and parasites are unable to produce their own food. The main difference between saprophytes and parasites is that saprophytes rely on dead and decaying organic matter for their nutrition whereas parasites completely depend on another organism for their nutrition. Saprophytes are mostly fungi and bacteria. They play a key role in ecosystems by releasing nutrients in the dead matter to the soil. Parasites can be unicellular or multicellular animals or plants. Protozoa, helminths, and ectoparasites are parasitic in humans. Rafflesia and Cuscata are parasitic plants.

Key Areas Covered

1. What are Saprophytes
     – Definition, Characteristics, Role, Examples
2. What are Parasites
     – Definition, Characteristics, Role, Examples
3. What are the Similarities Between Saprophytes and Parasites
     – Outline of Common Features
4. What is the Difference Between Saprophytes and Parasites
      – Comparison of Key Differences

Key Terms: Bacteria, Decomposers, Ectoparasites, Fungi, Helminths, Heterotrophs, Parasitic Plants, Parasites, Protozoa, Saprophytes

Difference Between Saprophytes and Parasites - Comparison Summary

What are Saprophytes

Saprophytes are fungi or bacteria, which rely on the dead or decaying organic matter. That means saprophytes are a type of decomposers that play an important role in recycling materials in ecosystems. Saprophytes are involved in the carbon cycle, phosphorous cycle, and nitrogen cycle as recyclers of dead materials. Saprophytes are either unicellular ameboid or filamentous.

Main Difference - Saprophytes vs Parasites

Figure 1: A Saprophytic Hyphae

The reproduction of saprophytes occurs through spore formation or simple division. Saprophytes secrete enzymes onto the decaying organic matter to externally digest the food and absorb the simple nutrient forms through their cell wall. These simple nutrients can be absorbed by plants as well. Some of the nutrients such as iron, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus in the decaying matter are released to the soil by saprophytes. A saprophytic fungal hypha on the forest floor is shown in figure 1

What are Parasites

Parasites are the organisms that live in or on another living organism called host. The nutrients are taken by the parasite at the expense of the host. Therefore, parasites can cause diseases in the host. The three types of organisms that cause diseases in humans are helminths, protozoa, and ectoparasites. Helminths are multicellular organisms that can be observed with the naked eye. Helminths are incapable of multiplying in humans. The roundworms (nematodes), thorny-headed worms (acanthocephalans), and flatworms (Platyhelminths) are helminths. Protozoa are unicellular organisms that can multiply inside humans. The Entamoeba, Plasmodium, and Leishmania are examples of protozoa in humans. The ectoparasites are blood-sucking arthropods. Ticks, lice, fleas, and mites are the examples of ectoparasites. Mosquitoes are also a type of blood-sucking arthropods. A Schistosoma mansoni, which is a parasite in human blood vessels is shown in figure 2.

Difference Between Saprophytes and Parasites - 2

Figure 2:  Schistosoma mansoni

Parasitic plants obtain nutrients from other plants, without producing their food by photosynthesis. Haustorium is a specialized organ found in parasitic plants that absorb nutrients. It penetrates the host plant, forming a vascular union with it. Some of the parasitic plants undergo vegetative growth completely within the host. Only the flowers of the parasitic plant emerge to the outside.

Difference Between Saprophytes and Parasites

Figure 3:  Rafflesia

The genus Rafflesia is a complete endophytic plant. The flower of Rafflesia is shown in figure 3. This flower is considered as the largest flower in the world.   

Similarity Between Saprophytes and Parasites

  • Both saprophytes and parasites are heterotrophs.

Difference Between Saprophytes and Parasites


Saprophytes: Saprophytes are organisms that grow on the dead and decaying material to obtain nutrients.

Parasites: Parasites are organisms that depend on other organisms to obtain nutrients.


Saprophytes: Saprophytes use extracellular digestion.

Parasites: Parasites use intracellular digestion.

Absorption of Nutrients

Saprophytes: Saprophytes absorb nutrients through the cell wall.

Parasites: Parasites absorb nutrients through haustoria.

Depend on

Saprophytes: Saprophytes depend on dead and decaying matter.

Parasites: Parasites harm their hosts.


Saprophytes: Mushrooms and bacteria are examples of saprophytes.

Parasites: Plasmodium, ticks, lice, fleas, mites, platyhelminths, roundworms, Cuscata, and Rafflesia are the examples of parasites.


Saprophytes and parasites are two types of heterotrophs with different modes of nutrition. Saprophytes depend on the dead or decaying organic matter. They secrete enzymes to digest dead organic matter externally and absorb simple forms of nutrients. Saprophytes play an important role in ecosystems. Parasites completely depend on a host organism in order to supply their nutrients. Therefore, parasites cause diseases in both plants and animals. This is the difference between saprophytes and parasites.


1. “Facts About Saprophytes.” Consumer Knowledge, Available here. Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.
2. “About Parasites.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 Apr. 2016, Available here. Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.
3. “Parasitic plant.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., Available here. Accessed 20 Aug. 2017.

Image Courtesy:

1. “Saprophytic-hyphae-under-oak” By Sten (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Commons Wikimedia
2. “Schistosoma mansoni2″ By The original uploader was Waisberg at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Gliu.Davies Laboratory Uniformed Services University Bethesda,(Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia
3. “Rafflesia 80 cm” By Steve Cornish (CC BY 2.0) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Lakna

Lakna, a graduate in Molecular Biology & Biochemistry, is a Molecular Biologist and has a broad and keen interest in the discovery of nature related things

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