Autotrophic Organisms

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An autotroph  is an organism that produces complex organic compounds from simple inorganic molecules using energy from light (by photosynthesis) or inorganic chemical reactions.


Autotrophs are the producers in a food chain, such as plants on land or algae in water. Bacteria which derive energy from oxidizing inorganic compounds (such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonium and ferrous iron) are chemoautotrophs, and include the lithotrophs.

autotroph overview






Overview of cycle between autotrophs and heterotrophs. Photosynthesis is the main means by which plants, algae and many bacteria produce organic compounds and oxygen from carbon dioxide and water (green arrow).


maidenhair fern

Green fronds of a maidenhair fern; a photoautotroph

Autotrophs are fundamental to the food chains of all ecosystems in the world. They take energy from the environment in the form of sunlight or inorganic chemicals and use it to create energy-rich molecules such as carbohydrates. This mechanism is called primary production. Other organisms, called heterotrophs, take in autotrophs as food to carry out functions necessary for their life. Thus, heterotrophs — all animals, almost all fungi, as well as most bacteria and protozoa — depend on autotrophs for the energy and raw materials they need. Heterotrophs obtain energy by breaking down organic molecules (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins) obtained in food. Carnivorous organisms ultimately rely on autotrophs because the nutrients obtained from their heterotroph prey come from autotrophs they consumed.


There are some species of organisms that require organic compounds as a source of carbon, but are able to use light or inorganic compounds as a source of energy. Such organisms are not defined as autotrophic, but rather as heterotrophic. An organism that obtains carbon from organic compounds but obtains energy from light is called a photoheterotroph, while an organism that obtains carbon from organic compounds but obtains energy from the oxidation of inorganic compounds is termed a chemoheterotroph.

Evidence suggests that some fungi may also obtain energy from radiation. Such radiotrophic fungi were found growing inside a reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.


autotroph flowchart

Flowchart to determine if a species is autotroph, heterotroph, or subtype

  • Autotroph
    • Chemoautotroph
    • Photoautotroph
  • Heterotroph
    • Chemoheterotroph
    • Photoheterotroph


Autotrophs are the producers in an ecosystem

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