Amebas constantly change the shape of their bodies as a result of the phenomenon known as ameboid movement, involving the formation of temporary extensions (pseudopodia, or false feet) of the body. Pseudopodia, used in locomotion and feeding, may be rounded at the tip (lobopodia), pointed (filopodia), branched and fused together (rhizopodia), or somewhat rigid and pointed (axopodia).
Although simple in form, amebas are very successful organisms and are found abundantly in a variety of habitats all over the world. Amebas live in freshwater, the oceans, and in the upper layers of the soil, and many have adapted to a parasitic life on the body surface of aquatic animals or in the internal organs of both aquatic and terrestrial animals. Few animals escape invasion by some type of ameba. Some are harmless, but others are pathogenic and cause serious diseases; e.g., Entamoeba histolytica causes amebic dysentery, which is fatal if untreated. The many genera of amebas were given their common name because of their resemblance to the genus Amoeba (order Amoebida), which includes several large, common species of which the freshwater Amoeba proteus is the most familiar.
The term ameba is sometimes also used to refer to other unicellular protists (e.g., slime molds) that have ameboid features such as pseudopodia. Other ameboid protozoans of the phylum Sarcodina include the marine radiolarians, which form silicate skeletons; their freshwater counterparts, the heliozoans; and the shell-bearing foraminiferans.
In a process known as phagocytosis, amebas engulf their prey, or particles of appropriate size, with their pseudopodia, forming food vacuoles. Digestive enzymes, manufactured and secreted by the organism, are then poured into these vacuoles, and the particles are digested. Useful compounds are subsequently absorbed into the ameba's body. Useless residues remain in the vacuoles and are ultimately expelled (egested) as the vacuole comes in contact with the membrane at the body surface. Amebas can distinguish food (e.g., algae, diatoms, bacteria, and other protozoans) from other material and use different tactics in approaching different food. Freshwater amebas take up water constantly through the process of osmosis, and water content is regulated with a pulsating contractile vacuole. Marine amebas lack a contractile vacuole. Respiration is by diffusion of gases through the cell membrane.
Under favorable conditions amebas divide by binary fission (splitting) to produce two daughter amebas, the nucleus dividing by mitosis. When an ameba is divided artificially, the portion containing the nucleus forms a new cell membrane and continues as a whole animal, while the other portion lives only as long as its present food supply lasts, ultimately dying, since it cannot ingest food or reproduce. If conditions are unfavorable, e.g., in the absence of food and water, amebas secrete a firm protective covering and encyst until conditions are again favorable to active division.