Wednesday, August 18, 2010

August 18, 2010 : Eastern Emerald Elysia

Eastern Emerald Elysia

Elysia chlorotica, common name the eastern emerald elysia, is a small-to-medium-sized species of green sea slug, a marine opisthobranch gastropod mollusc. This sea slug superficially resembles a nudibranch, yet it does not belong to that suborder of gastropods. Instead it is a member of the closely-related suborder Sacoglossa. The suborder Sacoglossa are known as the 'sap-sucking Opisthobranchias'. Many members of this group use chloroplasts from the algae they eat; a phenomenon known as kleptoplasty. Elysia chlorotica is one of the "solar-powered sea slugs", utilizing solar energy via chloroplasts from its algal food. It lives in a subcellularendosymbiotic relationship with chloroplasts of the marine heterokont alga Vaucheria litorea. 

Elysia chlorotica feeds on the intertidal algae Vaucheria litorea by puncturing the algal cell wall with its radula. The slug then holds the algal strand firmly in its mouth and, as though it were a straw, sucks out the contents. Instead of digesting the entire cell contents, or passing the contents through its gut unscathed, it retains only the algal chloroplasts, by storing them within its own cells throughout its extensive digestive system. The acquisition of chloroplasts begins immediately following metamorphosis from the veliger stagejuvenile sea slugs begin to feed on the when the Vaucheria litorea cells. Juvenile slugs are brown with red pigment spots until they feed upon the algae, at which point they become green. This is caused by the distribution of the chloroplasts throughout the extensively branched gut. Initially, the slug needs to continually feed upon algae to retain the chloroplasts, but over time the chloroplasts become more stably incorporated into the cells of the gut enabling the slug to remain green without further feeding.

The incorporation of chloroplasts within the cells of Elysia chlorotica allow the slug to capture energy directly from light, as most plants do, through the process known as photosynthesis. This is significantly beneficial for Elysia chlorotica because during time periods where algae is not readily available as a food supply, the Elysia chlorotica can survive for months on the sugars produced through photosynthesischloroplasts. Kept within the slug's own cells, it has been found that the chloroplasts can survive and function for up to nine or even 10 months. In one study performed by their own Elysia chlorotica were deprived of alga ingestion for a period of eight months. After the eight month period, despite the fact that the Elysia chlorotica were less green and more yellowish in colour, the majority of the chloroplasts within the slugs appeared to have remained intact while also maintaining their fine structure. Although Elysia chlorotica are unable to synthesize their own chloroplasts, the ability to maintain the chloroplasts acquired from Vaucheria litorea in a functional state indicates that Elysia chlorotica must possess photosynthesis-supporting genes within its own nuclear genome; most likely acquired through horizontal gene transfer. Since chloroplast DNAproteins required for proper photosynthesis, scientists investigated the alone encodes for just 10% of the Elysia chlorotica genome for potential genes that could support chloroplast survival and photosynthesis. The researchers found a vital algal gene, psbO (a nuclear gene encoding for a manganese-stabilizing protein within the photosystem II complex) in the sea slug's DNA, identical to the algal version. They concluded that the gene was likely to have been acquired through horizontal gene transfer, as it was already present in the eggs and sex cells of Elysia chlorotica.

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