Elysia chlorotica. Credit: Nicholas E. Curtis and Ray Martinez

Well, well now… this creature is certainly unusual… it’s half animal… and it’s half plant… and according to this article in LiveScience describing Sidney Pierce’s paper presented on January 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Seattle, this is apparently the only one known to possess a certain unique quality – making it’s own chlorophyll and it’s own food –  from light! How weird is that?

Pierce is a biologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“We collect them and we keep them in aquaria for months,” Pierce said. “As long as we shine a light on them for 12 hours a day, they can survive [without food].”

Amazing! Meet the sea slug known as Elysia chlorotica, (although I prefer George in this case), amazingly enough a resident of salt marshes in my own neck of the woods… here in New England and in Canada, too. Who knew?

It is actually able to steal genes from the algae that it eats – specific genes – the very genes that let said algae make chlorophyll; and then incorporate them into it’s own body in a way that they really work.

Even though George can perform that feat as a matter of course, it must rip off the hapless little algae  critters still further –  by taking their little chloroplasts. Chloroplasts are the biodevices within the algal cells that actually convert sunlight into energy, called photosynthesis, using the chlorophyll as fuel.

Eating is just an option for this thing… as long as there’s a bit of light about.

It also has the ability to pass the genes on to the kids, fully functioning, but they too must steal enough chloroplasts for the process to start working for them.

What I find interesting is that the article says that Pierce has been studying these creatures for 20 years… Surely it can’t be that he’s only noticed this ability now? No. Or is it that he’s crying out, so to speak, for others to continue to assist in the research so that the phenomenon can finally be understood? As he says…

“It certainly is possible that DNA from one species can get into another species, as these slugs have clearly shown,” Pierce said. “But the mechanisms are still unknown.”

Hey, here’s a very nice website concerning this little critter, from the Department of Biological Sciences, University of Maine.

Is it not fascinating to think that the mysterious forces of evolution have come together to give this simple creature the ability to so specifically choose to eat a certain organism and to extract from that animal something so small as a gene and then to use it in it’s own body… absolutely amazing! A real ganglia tickler, that! Damn!

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