Science News

Solar Power Stealing Sea Slug Might Be First Plant-Animal Hybrid, Study Suggests

Elysia Chlorotica Sea Slug

Elysia chlorotica is a brilliant green sea slug which researchers behind a new study believe to be the first plant-animal hybrid ever discovered, as the emerald green slug steals its solar power by feeding on algae and storing the algae’s photosynthesis performing plastids in its large transparent digestive glands.

The emerald green elysia acquires its solar power by feeding on algae. In the process of feeding on the submerged vegetation, the slug consumes green organelles which capture energy from the sun, combine it with carbon dioxide and water, and produce food. As the chloroplasts are stored in the slug’s digestive glands, it’s able to adopt the plant-like ability of photosynthesis.

Chloroplasts are tiny capsules inside green leaves which use sunlight to power chemical reactions plants require to survive.

Scientific American’s Ferris Jabr wrote that most slugs digest chloroplasts right away, but some species like the emerald green slugs, store the algal chloroplasts for weeks to months. This storage turns the sea slugs brilliant shades of green.

Jabr goes on to say that the chloroplasts inside an alga depend on a lot of genes in the alga’s own nuclear and the proteins for which they code.

In order to photosynthesize, the chloroplasts inside an alga depend on many genes in the alga’s own nucleus and the proteins for which they code. Tearing chloroplasts out of algal cells and asking them to make food inside a slug’s gut is like expecting the bottom half of a blender to puree some carrots sans the blade and glass jar.

Researchers used fluorescent DNA markers to illuminate the algal genes in the genetic material of adult and larva slugs, the researchers reported in the Biological Bulletin.

Professor Sidney K. Pierce, the study’s co-author and a biologist at the University of South Florida as well as the University of Maryland, indicated in a statement that there’s no way the genes from alga should work inside of an animal cell, yet they do.

There is no way on earth that genes from an alga should work inside an animal cell […] And yet here, they do. They allow the animal to rely on sunshine for its nutrition. So if something happens to their food source, they have a way of not starving to death until they find more algae to eat.

Smithsonian reports that if the findings in the study are confirmed, this would be the first case of gene transfer from one multicellular organism to another. The report also notes that bacteria do this all the time, however, the sea slug would be the first plant-animal hybrid ever discovered.

Functional gene transfer between multicullular species is the goal of gene therapy which aims to correct genetically-based human diseases.

Elysia chlorotica is found in salt marshes and shallow pools along the east of the U.S., particularly in New York, Maryland, Florida, Texas, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, according to the Daily Mail.

The solar-powered sea slugs can produce carbohydrates and lipids for itself for up to nine months.

What do you think of the photosynthesizing sea slug?

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