Sea slugs have the ability to perform some astonishing feats. Some can take on the toxins of their prey to increase their own defences, while others can detach and regrow their penis at will. Now, scientists have shed more light on a species that can photosynthesise, just like plants. A solar-powered sea slug.

Elysia chlorotica is an emerald green, and, at first glance, suspiciously resembles a tiny cabbage leaf. While resembling vegetation is worthy of wonder by itself – camouflage that helps the slug avoid detection by its predators – the recent study by the Marine Biological Laboratory highlights something perhaps even more spectacular.

Analysis using advanced imaging techniques suggests that the slug incorporates genes taken from the algae on which it feeds, in a remarkable example of gene transfer. These genes allow the embedding of cholorplasts into its own digestive cells, and by doing so E. chlorotica is able to photosynthesise in the same way a plant would. In the event of its food source becoming scarce, this wonderful sea slug can sustain itself for months at a time on solar power alone.



Based on materials provided by the Marine Biological Laboratory

Schwartz, J, Curtis, N & Pierce, S. (2015). FISH Labeling Reveals a Horizontally Transferred Algal (Vaucheria litorea) Nuclear Gene on a Sea Slug (Elysia chlorotica) Chromosome. Biol Bull, 227:300-312

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