The cells of protists are among the most elaborate of all cells. Multicellular plants, animals, and fungi are embedded among the protists in eukaryotic phylogeny. In most plants and animals and some fungi, complexity arises out of multicellularity, tissue specialization, and subsequent interaction because of these features. Although a rudimentary form of multicellularity exists among some of the organisms labelled as “protists,” those that have remained unicellular show how complexity can evolve in the absence of true multicellularity, with the differentiation of cellular morphology and function. 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. Some protists are composed of enormous, multinucleate, single cells that look like amorphous blobs of slime, or in other cases, like ferns. In some species of protists, 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 three meters in length to hectares! 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.