Cryptomonads, unicellular photosynthetic algae

Many ovular microalgal cultures on a microscope slide, they are a dark brown with bubble-like formations within
Microalgal cultures

As the name implies, cryptophytes (crypto = hidden) are unicellular algae that are often hidden. This is a consequence of their relatively small size (10-30 um), the fact that they often occur in deeper waters, and the fact that they are often difficult to collect in an intact condition. However, they are significant contributors to aquatic food chains, both marine and fresh water, and have interesting features that relate to their evolution.

Taxonomy and phylogeny

While consistent structural features unify the cryptomonad group, their placement relative to other living things is problematical. Although they have similar pigmentation (chlorophylls a and c and phycobillins) with the dinoflagellates, this may be the result of ancestral forms of both groups separately ingesting the same eukaryotic algae (a red algae) in a secondary endosymbiosis manner.


Cryptomonads have a distinctive structure. They are unicellular and have two flagella with an anterior groove. Their chloroplasts have four membranes, reflecting secondary endosymbiosis, i.e., that a eukaryote ingested another eukaryote, in this case one with a chloroplast (see Diatoms). Because of pigmentation, the second endosymbiotic event is thought to have involved a red algae being ingested by a unicellular heterotroph. This pattern is also thought to be the case for dinoflagellates and diatoms. Cryptomonads possess unusual structures called ejectisomes that can be discharged when the alga is disturbed, triggering movement that may deter a herbivore. Reflecting their secondary endosymbiotic origin, they have DNA in four locations: a nucleus, the mitochondrion, the chloroplast and in a structure called a nucleomorph, thought to be a remnant of the nucleus present in the cell of the second endosymbiotic event. They have no cell wall but do have a proteinaceous layer just inside the plasma membrane similar to the pellicle found in dinoflagellates. As might be expected for an organism lacking a cell wall, they possess contractile vacuoles to maintain water levels.

Sex and reproduction

There is some evidence for sexual reproduction in at least one species but primarily they reproduce asexually by mitosis.

A labeled diagram of a cryptophyta cell, the entire cell is pink, the labeled organelles are a variety of colors
Cryptophyta cell scheme: 1-contratile vacuola, 2-plastid, 3-thylakoid, 4-stigma, 5-nucleomorph, 6-starch granule, 7-70S ribosome, 8-nucleus, 9-80S ribosome, 10-flagella, 11-invagination, 12-lipid globules, 13-ejectosomes, 14-mitochondrion, 15-pyrenoid, 16-Golgi apparatus, 17-endplasmic reticulum, 18-chloroplast-endplasmic reticulum

Matter and energy

Almost all cryptomonads possess photosynthetic pigments and are photosynthetic autotrophs, acquiring carbon and 16 other elements in inorganic form from their environment. However, cryptomonads do require B vitamins, reflecting their heterotrophic ancestry. And a few species lack photosynthetic pigments and are heterotrophs, obtaining food by phagocytosis (invagination of the cell membrane to engulf a food particle). Some photosynthetic forms are also capable of phagocytosis, indicating mixotrophy (being both an autotroph and heterotroph).


Because red light penetrates deeper in the water column and because cryptomonads possess phycobiliproteins pigments that can utilize red light, cryptomonads can photosynthesize at greater depths than other algae, and cryptomonads are often found at greater depths than other algae. Although they are not a particularly diverse group, they appear to be quite important in several habitats, typically cooler ones, both marine and fresh water, serving as the base of food chains.

Further Reading and Viewing

  • “Cryptophyta” by Rocky Mountain Lake Algae. Nice article with good pictures, but note that when they state “(cryptophytes) have pigments found in no other group of algae (phycoerythrin and phycocyanin),” they are forgetting about red algae which have these pigments; it is because of this and other features cryptomonads are thought to have resulted from a secondary endosymbiosis event with the red algae. Also note that blue-green algae (which some don’t consider to be algae!) also have these pigments.

Media Attributions


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Inanimate Life Copyright © 2021 by George M. Briggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.