Green Sea Slug designated both plant and animal

green_sea_slugI’m basically in traction tonight thanks to a sledding mishap over the weekend. I don’t want to overwhelm you with graphic details, but let’s just say that you don’t want to introduce your spine to the corner of a metal utility box when you’re traveling downhill on ice at several feet per second. So, I’m lying here on the bed, trying not to cough, or move, or do anything else that might upset my cracked ribs, and I’m catching up on the news. Right now, I’m reading about a kind of sea slug that has somehow taught itself to photosynthesize, and I’m completely fascinated. Here’s a clip from Wired:

…Shaped like a leaf itself, the slug Elysia chlorotica already has a reputation for kidnapping the photosynthesizing organelles and some genes from algae. Now it turns out that the slug has acquired enough stolen goods to make an entire plant chemical-making pathway work inside an animal body, says Sidney K. Pierce of the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The slugs can manufacture the most common form of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants that captures energy from sunlight, Pierce reported January 7 at the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. Pierce used a radioactive tracer to show that the slugs were making the pigment, called chlorophyll a, themselves and not simply relying on chlorophyll reserves stolen from the algae the slugs dine on.

“This could be a fusion of a plant and an animal — that’s just cool,” said invertebrate zoologist John Zardus of The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.

Microbes swap genes readily, but Zardus said he couldn’t think of another natural example of genes flowing between multicellular kingdoms…

And now I’m wondering how long it might be before we try to introduce these genes into other species. We’re already making fluorescent rabbits, so why not people that can photosynthesize? I wouldn’t mind having green arms if it meant saving 20% on my weekly grocery bill, would you?

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  1. Peter Larson
    Posted January 11, 2010 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Jesus created this wonderous creature.

  2. Posted January 11, 2010 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    We could turn different colors in the fall.

  3. Posted January 11, 2010 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Why not? 90% of the cheese in North America is made with rennet from genetically modified organisms.

  4. Posted January 12, 2010 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    That’s not a slug, that’s my wife, Elysia!

  5. Taco Tom
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I think Mark identifies with the slug, right now.

  6. EOS
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    The fact that an animal is found that doesn’t fit neatly into the artificial categories designated by biologists is not evidence that an animal and plant “fused” into a single organism. Jesus created a wide diversity of life forms. Didn’t you ever study pond water in Middle School? The Euglena is an animal that photosynthesizes.

  7. Camera Girl
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    So, EOS, you think the distinction between plants and animals is somehow arbitrary? I’ve never heard anyone challenge the science of biology by saying, “Those guys are so dumb, they draw a line between plants and animals.” I just assumed that was the lowest common denominator that we could agree on. But I suppose I gave your side too much credit.

  8. Stan
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Vegans got to catch up, Yo.

  9. A Question for a Sci
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I’m guessing that a human needs a great many more calories than a plant to live. Given that, my assumption is that, even if people could photosynthesize, it wouldn’t be enough to keep them alive. I suppose that we could genetically alter our form so that we had leaves, or large fleshy panels that could absorb more solar energy. But, not taking that into consideration, how much energy could we expect to get from bared, green legs, arms and heads?

  10. Another Question
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    Are any of these traits being passed along through birth to baby green sea slugs? Or do they have to go through the same process of the adult sea slugs, or acquiring the photosynthesizing organelles and changing their own biology?

  11. EOS
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Camera Girl-

    At one point, biologists classified everything as either plant or animal. Then, because certain organisms like Euglena didn’t fit neatly into one or the other category, they added protists. Then they added Fungi, and finally added Monera. So yes, the distinction between plants and animals is very arbitrary, and there are now 5 categories. However, should they discover a new organism that can’t be classified into any of the 5 current categories, then they will add additional classifications. And if we do find an organism that requires an additional classification, it won’t mean that it evolved from a previously existing organism(s), but merely that we haven’t yet discovered all the different types of organisms.

  12. EOS
    Posted January 12, 2010 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    My last post is out of date. The consensus of biologists now is that there are 3 domains that contain six different Kingdoms of classification. My bad.

  13. Posted January 12, 2010 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, EoS, you are out of date, like centuries out of date.

  14. Posted January 12, 2010 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Mark — Ouch! Hope you heal quickly.

  15. Posted January 12, 2010 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    I got the x-ray results back today, and it looks like I’ve got two fractured ribs. Fortunately, it doesn’t look like the lung got damaged, though.

    I should mention that I’ve incredibly fortunate to have just broken two ribs. It could have been much worse. Thankfully, it missed my spine by a few inches… At any rate, I’m not complaining. It hurts like hell, but just when I move, so it’s OK as long as I sit or lay still. And I don’t image that it’ll hurt more than about a month. I don’t thin it’ll be a problem. Today, though, I had to apologize to my next door neighbors for all the yelling.

  16. Vitiligo
    Posted May 21, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Like that obese woman who grew to her couch.

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