Water molds (or water moulds: see spelling differences) also known as Oomycetes are a group of filamentous, unicellular protists, physically resembling fungi. They are microscopic, absorptive organisms that reproduce both sexually and asexually and are composed of mycelia, or a tube-like vegetative body (all of an organism's mycelia are called its thallus). The name "water mold" refers to their earlier classification as fungi, which stemmed from their preference for conditions of high humidity and running surface water, although they are now known to have evolved separately and show a number of differences. For instance, their cell walls are composed of cellulose rather than chitin and generally do not have septations. Also, in the vegetative state they have diploid nuclei, whereas fungi have haploid nuclei.
Instead, water molds are related to organisms such as brown algae and diatoms, making up a group called the heterokonts. The name comes from the common arrangement and structure of motile cells, which typically have two unequal flagella. Among the water molds, these are produced as asexual spores called zoospores, which capitalize on surface water (including precipitation on plant surfaces) for movement. They also produce sexual spores, called oospores, that are translucent double-walled spherical structures used to survive adverse environmental conditions. A few produce aerial asexual spores that are distributed by wind.
The water molds are economically and scientifically important because they are aggressive plant pathogens (see plant pathology). The majority can be broken down into three groups, although more exist.
- The Phytophthora group is a genus that causes diseases such as dieback, potato blight, sudden oak death, rhododendron root rot, and Ink Disease in the American Chestnut.
- The Pythium group is even more prevalent than Phytophythora and individual species have larger host ranges, usually causing less damage. Pythium damping off is a very common problem in greenhouses where the organism kills newly emerged seedlings. Mycoparasitic members of this group (e.g. P. oligandrum) parasitize other oomycetes and fungi, and have been employed as biocontrol agents. One Pythium species, Pythium insidiosum is also known to infect mammals.
- The third group are the downy mildews, which are easily identifiable by the appearance of white "mildew" on leaf surfaces (although this group can be confused with the unrelated powdery mildews).
Classification of Oomycetes
Traditionally, this group was thought to include types of fungi, and, indeed, Fungi themselves were thought to be closely related to Plants. Many species of Oomycetes are still described and listed as types of Fungi.
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