The cells of protists are among the most elaborate of all cells. Most protists are microscopic and unicellular, but some true multicellular forms exist. A few protists live as colonies that behave in some ways as a group of free-living cells and in other ways as a multicellular organism. Still other protists are composed of enormous, multinucleate, single cells that look like amorphous blobs of slime or, in other cases, like ferns. In fact, many protist cells are multinucleated; in some species, the nuclei are different sizes and have distinct roles in protist cell function.
Single protist cells range in size from less than a micrometer to the 3-meter lengths of the multinucleate cells of the seaweed Caulerpa. Protist cells may be enveloped by animal-like cell membranes or plant- like cell walls. Others are encased in glassy silica-based shells or wound with pellicles of interlocking protein strips. The pellicle functions like a flexible coat of armor, preventing the protist from being torn or pierced without compromising its range of motion.
The majority of protists are motile, but different types of protists have evolved varied modes of movement. Some protists have one or more flagella, which they rotate or whip. Others are covered in rows or tufts of tiny cilia that they beat in coordination to swim. Still others send out lobe-like pseudopodia from anywhere on the cell, anchor the pseudopodium to a substrate, and pull the rest of the cell toward the anchor point. Some protists can move toward light by coupling their locomotion strategy with a light-sensing organ.