What are some examples of heterotrophic nutrition

In order to develop their body substance and maintain their vital functions, all living beings need hydrogen (H), oxygen (O) and trace elements as well as the elements carbon (C) and nitrogen (N), which they take in through food. With regard to the nutritional basis, two types of nutrition can basically be distinguished: autotrophic organisms and heterotrophic organisms.

1. Autotrophic organisms

Autotrophic organisms (cars (Greek) = self; trophe (Greek) = food) can feed themselves, i.e. they are not dependent on organic substances from other living beings. They are able to convert simple inorganic compounds such as carbon dioxide (CO2), Ammonium (NH4), Nitrates (NO3), Phosphates (PO4) and sulfates (SO4) to synthesize the body's own organic compounds such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins. The energy required for this is obtained either from sunlight (photosynthesis) or from chemical reactions (chemosynthesis). According to the form of their energy production, autotrophic organisms can be differentiated into two groups:

a)photoautotrophic organisms: With the help of Chlorophyll they are able to use sunlight as an energy source for the synthesis of carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water (= photosynthesis). These include green plants, algae, lichens, and cyanobacteria.
b)Chemoautotrophic organisms: They get their energy from the oxidation of inorganic substances. These include, for example, particularly specialized bacteria such as sulfur bacteria or nitrifying bacteria.

2. Heterotrophic organisms

Heterotrophic organisms (straight (Greek) = different, dissimilar; trophe (Greek) = food) are not able to convert inorganic compounds into the body's own organic substances through photo- or chemosynthesis. Rather, they are dependent on the supply of organic substances for their nutrition and thus depend on other living beings. This includes all animal organisms, fungi, most types of bacteria, non-green plants and microorganisms.

Their heterotrophy can vary in severity. There are species that can assimilate inorganic nitrogen (e.g. yeasts and molds) and are therefore largely autotrophic in terms of their nitrogen supply. Completely heterotrophic organisms, on the other hand, require organic nitrogen and carbon sources.

With regard to the quality of the organic matter that is used for heterotrophic nutrition, different types can be distinguished:

Phytophagous organisms:they feed on (living) plant matter
Zoophage organisms:they feed on (living) animal matter
Mycophage organisms: they feed on mushrooms
Saprophage organisms:they feed on dead organic
Substance of vegetable or animal origin
Necrophage organisms:they feed on animal corpses
Coprophage organisms:they feed on feces

In addition, specific forms of interaction between different organisms have developed in the food community. All organisms in a living space are directly related to life through the cycle of matter, the food chain and the food web (see graphic).

Diet types and their interconnectedness in the ecosystem (modified from EISENBEIS / WICHARD 1985, p. 20)

Ultimately, the autotrophic organisms are also dependent on other (heterotrophic) organisms, since inorganic compounds and mineral salts are released during the conversion, decomposition and mineralization of the organic matter, which can then be used again for the autotrophic build-up of the body's own organic matter.

Additional Information:


GISI, U. / SCHENKER, R. / STADELMANN, F.X./ STICHER, H. (1997): Soil Ecology. 2nd Edition.
Stuttgart; New York: Thieme.
SCHROEDER, D. (1992): Soil Science in Key Words. 5th edition. Berlin; Stuttgart: Borntraeger.