According to a study conducted by Rutgers University-New Brunswick in association with other researchers, a Northeast sea slug is capable of scrapping the necessary substances it needs to produce from plain algae. The raw materials provide the slug with all the energy it needs during its lifetime, which is a very bizarre occurrence in nature.

A Solar Phenomenon

According to researchers, it is a peculiar phenomenon that the mollusk , which is an animal, is able to act like a plant and use to create the solar energy it needs to survive. The slug is using what is known as artificial photosynthesis to create solar energy from light. The scientists are very interested in the method used by the mollusk to preserve the plastids it “steals” from algae without having a plant nucleus.

The researchers hope that by discovering the method used by the mollusk to preserve the plastids (and to use them to produce solar energy), they will be able to replicate it and develop mechanisms to produce an eternal supply of solar energy. And they wouldn’t have to use plants for this purpose at all. At the time of writing, photosynthetic organelle is the only thing that is able to create green, solar energy. However, the mollusk is a clear example proving that this solar energy can be harvested without plants or algae.

Elysia Chlorotica – A New Connection to Solar

At first glance, the mollusk doesn’t seem to have anything to do with solar power. Elysia Chlorotica is a seemingly typical sea slug that can grow over two inches long. It can be found in various areas around the globe, including Florida. These slugs feed on the Vaucheria Litorea alga, which is not toxic. The bizarre thing is that once the mollusk begins to eat the algae, the animal becomes photosynthetic. In other words, it is able to produce solar energy using light from the Sun, just like a plant. It does this by somehow stealing algal plastids and then preserving them in its gut lining. Plastids are like miniature solar panels; they produce energy from solar light, powering the little mollusk for its entire lifespan.

Unlike most other algae, Vaucheria Litorea does not have a wall between each of its cells, which means that it is like a tube full of plastids and nuclei. Consequently, the mollusk can simply make a hole and then suck all the photosynthetic organelles with ease. The algal plastids, because they are useful as mini solar panels, are not harmed; however, the algal nuclei do not survive the process. This is the most interesting part of the entire process. It had been previously thought by the scientific community that solar energy could not be produced by plastids without nuclei to control their function.

One could argue that the mollusk is simply storing nutrients when assimilating the plastids, similar to how camels store water. However, unlike most other mollusks that do store nutrients to be used during difficult times, Elysia Chlorotica stops feeding entirely after it has had its fill of photosynthetic organelles from algae. It simply lives off the energy these miniature solar panels produce. The lifespan of the mollusk is from six to eight months. During this time, it will not need any energy other than the energy it produces using the stolen plastids.

Scientists are currently studying the mollusk, trying to understand how it manages to use the stolen plastids to create and use solar energy. Using RNA sequencing, the researchers have been able to demonstrate that the mollusk actively protects the plastids in its gut lining. They are not digested and the mollusk turns on various animal genes which are responsible for using the photosynthetic products resulting from the action of the stolen algal plastids.

Solar Slugs Could Be the Answer We Need

Researchers compared the Elysia Chlorotica “solar” mollusk with corals and found several similarities. However, even though corals live in a symbiotic relationship with dinoflagellates (these are algae, just like Vaucheria Litorea), they do not steal the plastids – the miniature solar panels – like the mollusk does.

Taking into account the fact that the algal nuclei are destroyed when the mollusk sucks the photosynthetic organelles, scientists are still unable to explain how the animal manages to keep the plastids alive and use them to create solar energy for months. Previous to this discovery, it was thought that plastids would not produce solar energy without nuclei.

And this is exactly why this little mollusk is of great interest to the researchers. An animal capable of behaving like a plant (that is exceptional at harvesting solar energy using stolen plastids) is something out of the ordinary –remarkable even, especially when it comes to the future of solar. It holds the key to discovering how to preserve plastids and how to use them without nuclei to produce solar power. If these mysteries are solved, mankind could use new methods to produce perpetual green solar energy. Solar news continues to bring forth fascinating concepts – stay on top of it to stay in the know!

Sources:

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180503085550.htm

http://www.labmanager.com/news/2018/05/solar-powered-sea-slugs-shed-light-on-search-for-perpetual-green-energy

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