Contractile vacuoles are organelles that collect fluid from the cytoplasm and expel it to the outside. After each discharge (systole), they appear again and expand (diastole). They are widely distributed among Protozoa, and have been found also in some fresh water algae, sponges, and recently in some blood cells of the frog, guinea pig, and man.
In spite of the extensive work on the contractile vacuole, very little is known concerning its mode of operation. An electron microscope study of a suctorian Tokophrya infusionum provided an opportunity to study thin sections of contractile vacuoles, and in these some structures were found which could be part of a mechanism for the systolic and diastolic motions the organelle displays.
In Tokophrya, as in Suctoria and Ciliata in general, the contractile vacuole has a permanent canal connecting it with the outside. The canal appears to have a very elaborate structure and is composed of three parts: (1) a pore; (2) a channel; and (3) a narrow tubule located in a papilla protruding into the cavity of the contractile vacuole. Whereas the pore and channel have fixed dimensions and are permanently widely open, the tubule has a changeable diameter. At diastole it is so narrow (about 25 to 30 mµ in diameter) that it could be regarded as closed, while at systole it is widely open.
It is assumed that the change in diameter is due to the contraction of numerous fine fibrils (about 180 A thick) which are radially disposed around the canal in form of a truncated cone, with its tip at the channel, and its base at the vacuolar membrane. It seems most probable that the broadening of the tubule results in discharge of the content of the contractile vacuole.
In the vicinity of the very thin limiting vacuolar membrane, small vesicles and canaliculi of the endoplasmic reticulum, very small dense particles, and mitochondria may be found. In addition, rows of closely packed vesicles are present in this region, and in other parts of the cytoplasm. It is suggested that they might represent dictyosome-like bodies, responsible for withdrawing fluids from the cytoplasm and then conveying them to the contractile vacuole, contributing to its expansion at diastole.