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Study guide: Root Words of Biological Terminology

This list of root words, prefixes, and suffixes is intended to take some of the frustration out of learning for the first time the bewildering number of terms used for describing organisms. Most complex scientific terms are formed from shorter roots having specific and consistent meanings. Roots of biological terms are most often derived from latin or greek. It is often possible to determine the approximate meaning of a new compound term by dividing it into its component root words, provided one knows the meanings of the more commonly used roots. For example, if you know that "gymno" means naked and "sperm" refers to a seed, you can deduce that gymnosperm means "naked seed." Gymnosperms get that name because their seeds are not enclosed by a fruit (carpel) as those of flowering plants are.

A dictionary of biological root words is a valuable reference for any biology student. You should consider buying one for your personal library. A couple of good ones are Donald J. Borror’s Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms and William N. Marchuk’s A Life Science Lexicon.

The following list is far from complete, but it is applicable to the most basic terms used in a general biology course. With careful study and a little practice, you will find that biolgical terminology is both logical and useful.

For each root, the table gives its usual meaning, an example compound term formed using the root, and the meaning of the example term. Many of the example terms are botanical, but that is just because of personal bias. All of these roots are useful for zoology and the rest of biology, not just plant biology.

Root word    Root meaning         Example term          Meaning of example term  
a-           not                  amorphic              without form                       
acro-        tip, end             acropetal             toward the tip                     
aerobic      with oxygen          aerobic respiration   resp. that requires oxygen         
amphi-       around, both sides   amphicribral          surrounded by phloem               
an-          not                  anisogamous           gametes not the same size          
andro-       male                 androecium            stamens of the flower              
angio-       vessel, enclosed     angiosperm            enclosed seeds                     
anther-      male                 antheridium           sperm-producing organ              
annular      ring                 annulus               ring on stalk of mushroom          
antho-       flower               Anthophyta            division: flowering plants         
apical       at the tip           apical meristem       growing point at tip               
apo-         without, separate    apocarpous            separate carpels in a flower       
aqui-        water                aquatic               organism living in water           
asco-        sac-like             ascus                 sac-shaped sporangium              
auto-        self                 autotrophic           self-feeding                       
basidio-     club-shaped          basidium              club-shaped sporangium             
bi-          two                  biflagellate          having two flagella                
bio-         living               biology               study of living things             
bryo-        moss                 Bryophyta             division including mosses          
-carp        fruit                exocarp               outside tissue of fruit            
chaeto-      bristle              Bulbochaete           algae genus having bristles        
chemo-       chemical             chemotaxis            moving toward a chemical           
chloro-      green                chlorophyll           green pigment                      
chromo-      colored              chromoplast           colored plastid                    
con-         together             connate               organs fused together              
cocco-       round                Chlorococcum          round, unicellular alga genus      
crypto-      hidden               cryptogam             hidden gametes (lower plants)      
cyano-       blue-green           Cyanobacteria         Blue-green bacteria (algae)        
-cyst        cell, bladder        pneumatocyst          air-filled bladder                 
-cyte        cell                 sporocyte             spore-producing cell               
-derm        skin                 epidermis             covering layer of cells            
di-          two                  dichotomous           two-forked branching pattern       
diplo-       double               diploid               two sets of chromosomes            
-dynamic     moving               heterodynamic         flagella behave differently        
-ecious      house                dioecious             separate sexes                     
endo-        inside               endosporic            developing within spore wall       
epi-         upon, above          epiphytic             growing upon another plant         
erythro-     red                  erythrocyte           red blood cell                     
eu-          true                 eukaryotic            having a true nucleus              
exo-         outside              exocarp               outer wall of a fruit              
-flora       flower               grandiflora           large flowers                      
gam-         gametes              gametangium           gamete-producing organ             
-gen         origin               phylogeny             evolutionary origin                
geno-        genes                genotype              genetic composition                
geo-         earth                geotropism            bending toward the earth           
glyco-       sweet, sugar         glycolysis            sugar splitting ( resp.)           
gymno-       naked                gymnosperm            naked seeds                        
gyn-         female               gynoecium             female parts of a flower           
haplo-       single               haploid               has one set of chromosomes         
hetero-      different, other     heteromorphic         having two different forms         
holo-        whole, entire        holozooic             ingesting whole particles          
homo-        same                 homosporous           all spores same type               
hydro-       water                hydrophyte            a water plant                      
hyper-       extreme              hypersaline           very salty conditions              
hypo-        beneath              hypocotyl             below the cotyledon                
inter-       between              interspecific         between two species                
iso-         same                 isogamous             gametes alike in size              
karyo-       nucleus              prokaryotic           before nucleus (cell type)         
kin-         moving               kinetic               energy of motion                   
lamina       layer                laminate              having many layers, flat           
lateral      side                 lateral meristem      bud on the side of the stem        
leuco-       colorless            leucoplast            colorless plastid                  
lipo-        fat                  liposome              fat-containing body in cell        
litho-       stone                Lithops               genus of rock-like plants          
lyso-        split                hydrolysis            splitting by adding water          
macro-       large                Macrocystis           giant kelp genus (brown alga)      
meio-        involving meiosis    meiospore             spore produced by meiosis          
mega-        large                megaspore             large spore type                   
meso-        middle               mesocarp              middle layer of fruit wall         
micro-       small                microphyll            small leaf                         
mid-         middle               midvein               middle vein of a leaf              
mito-        involving mitosis    mitospore             spore produced by mitosis          
monad        single cell          Chlamydomonas         unicellular green alga             
mono-        one                  monoecious            both sexes in same plant           
multi-       many                 multicellular         having many cells                  
morph        form                 polymorphic           many different forms               
myco-        fungi                mycology              study of the fungi                 
-nema        thread               protonema             first growth of a moss             
-oid         resembling           rhizoid               root-like filament of cells        
oo-          egg                  oogonium              egg producing organ                
paleo-       ancient              paleobotany           study of fossil plants             
peri-        around               pericardium           surrounding the heart              
phaeo-       brown                Phaeophyta            division name of brown algae       
phago-       eating               phagocytosis          cell eating by ingestion           
-philic      loving               hydrophilic           binds to water                     
-phobic      fearing              hydrophobic           repels water                       
-phore       bearer               sporangiophore        stalk bearing a sporangium         
photo-       light                phototropic           bending toward light               
phyco-       algae                phycobiont            algae partner of a lichen          
-phyll       leaf                 sporophyll            leaf bearing sporangia             
-phyte       plant                xerophyte             arid climate plant                 
pneumo-      air                  pneumatocyst          air-filled bladder                 
-podium      foot                 pseudopodium          false foot of amoeba               
poly-        many                 polypetalous          having separate petals             
pre-         before               premeiotic            before meiosis                     
pro-         first, before        prokaryotic           before nucleus                     
proto-       first, before        protoderm             young epidermis tissue             
pseudo-      false                pseudoparenchyma      resembling parenchyma              
pterido-     fern                 pteridophyte          fancy name for a fern              
pyro-        fire                 Pyrex                 heat resistant glassware           
quadri-      four                 quadriflagellate      having 4 flagella                  
rhizo-       root-like            rhizoid               root-like filament of cells        
rhodo-       red                  Rhodophyta            division name for red algae        
sapro-       dead or decaying     saprobic              feeding on dead matter             
semi-        half                 semicell              half of a desmid (alga) cell       
siphon       tube                 Polysiphonia          genus of red algae                 
sperm        seed                 spermatophyte         seed plant                         
stato-       stationary           statolith             stony body sensing gravity         
-stome       mouth                peristome             open top of moss sporophyte        
sym-, syn-   together             sympetalous           petals fused into one unit         
terminal     at the end           terminal flower       flower at end of stem              
tetra-       four                 tetrad                group of 4 spores                  
-theca       case, sheath         epitheca              upper half of diatom wall          
thermo-      heat                 thermophilic          preferring hot environment         
thigmo-      touch                thigmonasty           response of a plant to touch       
trans-       through              transillumination     pass light through specimen        
tricho-      hair-like            trichome              hair-like epidermal cell           
-trophic     feeding              autotrophic           feeding by photosynthesis          
uni-         one                  unicellular           having only a single cell          
xero-        arid, dry            xerophyte             plant from arid habitat            
zoo-         animal-like          zoospore              a swimming spore                   
zygo-        zygote               zygospore             dormant cell from a zygote         

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