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This Photosynthetic Sea Slug Can Shed Light on Perpetual Green Energy

A Sea slug called Elysia Chlorotica, majorly known as the leaves that crawl, can create perpetual green energy. According to a study by Rutgers University, sea slug sucks raw materials from algae to provide its lifetime supply of solar-powered energy in the Northeast.

Sea slug is a marine invertebrate with varying levels of resemblance to terrestrial slugs.

Christened Elysia chlorotica, the mollusc can grow to about 2 inches long and lives in the intertidal zone between Nova Scotia, Canada and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, as well as in Florida, the team reports. As juveniles, the slugs munch on Vaucheria litorea, a non-toxic variety of brown algae, to appropriate their plastids — the algae’s photosynthetic organelles — and store them in their gut lining.

The team used RNA sequencing to see what the slug does with the plastids it ingests. Their results show that the animal’s body actively responds to the organelles, protecting them from digestion and turning on genes to utilize the photosynthetic products they synthesize. The team’s results resemble findings in corals — animals that maintain symbiotic dinoflagellates (algae) which perform photosynthesis to help feed the coral.

Bhattacharya explains that Vaucheria litorea is an ideal food source for the slug because it doesn’t have walls separating adjoining cells in its body — it’s essentially one long tube filled with nuclei and plastids. This means that the slug can suck out all the cellular contents through a single puncture, anywhere along the algae’s outer wall.

After gathering enough of the organelles (in the order of a few million), the slugs become photosynthetic. Just like a plant, they start using sunlight to create sugars (compounds that store chemical energy) in their bodies from carbon dioxide and water.

"It's a remarkable feat because it's highly unusual for an animal to behave like a plant and survive solely on photosynthesis," said Debashish Bhattacharya, senior author of the study.

"The broader implication is in the field of artificial photosynthesis. That is, if we can figure out how the slug maintains stolen, isolated plastids to fix carbon without the plant nucleus, then maybe we can also harness isolated plastids for eternity as green machines to create bioproducts or energy.

The existing paradigm is that to make green energy, we need the plant or alga to run the photosynthetic organelle, but the slug shows us that this does not have to be the case," he added.

This particular algae is an ideal food source because it does not have walls between adjoining cells in its body and can suck out the cell contents and gather all of the algal plastids at once.

The study concluded that the algal nuclei that are also sucked in don't survive, and scientists still don't know how the sea slug maintains the plastids and photosynthesis for months without the nuclei that are normally needed to control their function.
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