Difference Between Autotrophs and Heterotrophs

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Food is the only source of energy for all living organisms on this planet. This food is available from different sources.  Living organisms are further divided based on the modes of nutrition:

  • Autotrophs
  • Heterotrophs

Here in this article, let us know about the differences between autotrophs and heterotrophs, along with the examples.

Autotrophs and Heterotrophs

“Autotrophs are organisms that prepare their own food through the process of photosynthesis, whereas heterotrophs are organisms that cannot prepare their own food and depend upon autotrophs for nutrition.”


Autotrophs are organisms that undergo autotrophic mode of nutrition. These are the organisms that can prepare their own food from simple substances like carbon dioxide and water. All green plants are examples of autotrophs. These green plants contain chlorophyll pigment in the plant cell that helps in the synthesis of their own food by absorbing energy from the sunlight. All autotrophs are producers and are placed at the primary level in the food web.

Carbohydrates can be converted to fatty acids to produce lipids. Other elements may be added to synthesize organic compounds such as proteins.  Carbohydrates, proteins and lipids can be used as energy sources during respiration by both autotrophs and heterotrophs, recycling carbon dioxide so that it may again be used in photosynthesis.

Also, read about Autotrophic Nutrition


Heterotrophs are organisms which cannot prepare their own food and depend upon producers or green plants and other animals for their food. This mode of nutrition is known as the heterotrophic mode of nutrition.

Heterotrophs rely on autotrophs to provide a continuous supply of new organic molecules. Heterotrophs are considered as consumers in the food web and are placed at a secondary or tertiary level.

All the non-green plants and animals, inclusive of human beings, are the best examples of heterotrophs.

The heterotrophs are benefited from photosynthesis in many ways.

  • Directly by consuming plants as herbivores
  • Indirectly by attacking, killing and consuming other herbivores animals (carnivores) or both animals and plants (omnivores)
  • By using oxygen for the cellular respiration process

Also, read about Heterotrophic Nutrition

Difference between Autotrophs and Heterotrophs

The differences between autotrophs and heterotrophs are given below:

Autotrophs Heterotrophs
Type of Organisms
Usually members of the plant kingdom and certain unicellular organisms like cyanobacteria All members of the animal kingdom
Mode of Nutrition
Autotrophs are producers who prepare their own food. Heterotrophs are consumers who depend on other sources for their food.
Classified into
These can be classified as photoautotrophs and chemoautotrophs. These can be classified as photoheterotrophs and chemoheterotrophs.
Presence of chloroplasts
The chloroplast helps in preparing food. They do not contain chloroplast, so cannot prepare food.
Energy is obtained from
They obtain energy from inorganic sources by converting light energy into chemical energy. They obtain energy directly or indirectly from other organisms.
Energy Storage
Autotrophs can store light energy and chemical energy. Heterotrophs cannot store energy.
In Food Chain
They are placed at the primary level in the food chain. These are placed in the secondary or tertiary level in the food chain.
They cannot move from their place. Can move from one place to another in search of food and shelter.
Green plants, algae and a few photosynthetic bacteria are examples of autotrophs. Cows, buffaloes, tigers, horses, humans are examples of heterotrophs.


Autotrophs and Heterotrophs Key Points

  • Autotrophs and heterotrophs are the two classifications of organisms on the basis of nutrition.
  • Autotrophs are organisms that can prepare their own food. On the contrary, heterotrophs depend on autotrophs and other organisms for nutrition.
  • Green plants and algae contain chlorophyll that helps them to prepare food with the help of sunlight.
  • Heterotrophs include herbivores that feed on plants, carnivores that feed on other animals, omnivores that feed on both plants and animals and decomposers that feed on dead and decaying matter.
  • Autotrophs are the primary producers and are placed first in the food chain.
  • Heterotrophs are the consumers and are placed at the secondary and tertiary levels.
  • Both are beneficial to maintain the energy flow in the ecosystem.

From the above discussion, we can conclude that both autotrophs and heterotrophs and the modes of nutrition play equal roles in maintaining the food chain of the ecosystem.

Frequently Asked Questions


List out the different types of heterotrophs.

The different types of heterotrophs based on their source of nutrition are:-

  1. Herbivores:  Animals which obtain their nutrition from eating only plants and their materials.
  2. Carnivores: Animals which obtain their nutrition from killing and eating the flesh of other animals.
  3. Omnivores: Animals which obtain their nutrition from both plants as well animals.
  4. Decomposers: Animals which obtain their nutrition from dead and decay matter.

List out the examples of  Heterotrophs.

Animals, including herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores are examples of Heterotrophs.


List out the examples of  Autotrophs.

All green plants synthesizing their own food through the biological process called Photosynthesis are examples of Autotrophs.


Which organisms are both autotrophs and heterotrophs?

Cyanobacteria are organisms that are both autotrophs and heterotrophs. They exhibit photoautotrophic nutrition. Archaea is another example of organisms that are both autotrophs and heterotrophs.


What are the different types of autotrophs?

The different types of autotrophs include:

  • Photoautotrophs: These are the organisms that use sunlight to prepare their own food.
  • Chemoautotrophs: These are organisms that obtain energy from carbon dioxide using inorganic energy sources.

Learn more about the differences between autotrophs and heterotrophs only at BYJU’S Biology.

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