Sea slug has taken genes from algae it eats, allowing it to photosynthesize like a plant

February 03, 2015

WOODS HOLE, Mass.--How a brilliant-green sea slug manages to live for months at a time "feeding" on sunlight, like a plant, is clarified in a recent study published in The Biological Bulletin.

The authors present the first direct evidence that the emerald green sea slug's chromosomes have some genes that come from the algae it eats.

These genes help sustain photosynthetic processes inside the slug that provide it with all the food it needs.

Importantly, this is one of the only known examples of functional gene transfer from one multicellular species to another, which is the goal of gene therapy to correct genetically based diseases in humans.

"Is a sea slug a good [biological model] for a human therapy? Probably not. But figuring out the mechanism of this naturally occurring gene transfer could be extremely instructive for future medical applications," says study co-author Sidney K. Pierce, an emeritus professor at University of South Florida and at University of Maryland, College Park.

The team used an advanced imaging technique to confirm that a gene from the alga V. litorea is present on the E. chlorotica slug's chromosome. This gene makes an enzyme that is critical to the function of photosynthetic "machines" called chloroplasts, which are typically found in plants and algae.

It has been known since the 1970s that E. chloritica "steals" chloroplasts from V. litorea (called "kleptoplasty") and embeds them into its own digestive cells. Once inside the slug cells, the chloroplasts continue to photosynthesize for up to nine months--much longer than they would perform in the algae. The photosynthesis process produces carbohydrates and lipids, which nourish the slug.

How the slug manages to maintain these photosynthesizing organelles for so long has been the topic of intensive study and a good deal of controversy. "This paper confirms that one of several algal genes needed to repair damage to chloroplasts, and keep them functioning, is present on the slug chromosome," Pierce says. "The gene is incorporated into the slug chromosome and transmitted to the next generation of slugs." While the next generation must take up chloroplasts anew from algae, the genes to maintain the chloroplasts are already present in the slug genome, Pierce says.

"There is no way on earth that genes from an alga should work inside an animal cell," Pierce says. "And yet here, they do. They allow the animal to rely on sunshine for its nutrition. So if something happens to their food source, they have a way of not starving to death until they find more algae to eat. "

This biological adaptation is also a mechanism of rapid evolution, Pierce says. "When a successful transfer of genes between species occurs, evolution can basically happen from one generation to the next," he notes, rather than over an evolutionary timescale of thousands of years.
-end-
Citation:

Schwartz JA, Curtis NE, and Pierce SK (2014) FISH labeling reveals a horizontally transferred algal (Vaucheria litorea) nuclear gene on a sea slug (Elysia chlorotica) chromosome. Biol. Bull. 227: 300-312.

The Biological Bulletin is a peer-reviewed, trans-disciplinary international journal that publishes outstanding experimental research on a wide range of organisms and biological topics, with a focus on marine models. Published since 1897 by the Marine Biological Laboratory, it is one of America's oldest and most respected journals.

The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery and improving the human condition through research and education in biology, biomedicine, and environmental science. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.

Marine Biological Laboratory

Related Gene Therapy Articles from Brightsurf:

Risk of AAV mobilization in gene therapy
New data highlight safety concerns for the replication of recombinant adeno-associated viral (rAAV) vectors commonly used in gene therapy.

Discovery challenges the foundations of gene therapy
An article published today in Science Translational Medicine by scientists from Children's Medical Research Institute has challenged one of the foundations of the gene therapy field and will help to improve strategies for treating serious genetic disorders of the liver.

Gene therapy: Novel targets come into view
Retinitis pigmentosa is the most prevalent form of congenital blindness.

Gene therapy targets inner retina to combat blindness
Batten disease is a group of fatal, inherited lysosomal storage disorders that predominantly affect children.

New Human Gene Therapy editorial: Concern following gene therapy adverse events
Response to the recent report of the deaths of two children receiving high doses of a gene therapy vector (AAV8) in a Phase I trial for X-linked myotubular myopathy (MTM).

Restoring vision by gene therapy
Latest scientific findings give hope for people with incurable retinal degeneration.

Gene therapy/gene editing combo could offer hope for some genetic disorders
A hybrid approach that combines elements of gene therapy with gene editing converted an experimental model of a rare genetic disease into a milder form, significantly enhancing survival, shows a multi-institutional study led by the University of Pennsylvania and Children's National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

New technology allows control of gene therapy doses
Scientists at Scripps Research in Jupiter have developed a special molecular switch that could be embedded into gene therapies to allow doctors to control dosing.

Gene therapy: Development of new DNA transporters
Scientists at the Institute of Pharmacy at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) have developed new delivery vehicles for future gene therapies.

Gene therapy promotes nerve regeneration
Researchers from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience and the Leiden University Medical Center have shown that treatment using gene therapy leads to a faster recovery after nerve damage.

Read More: Gene Therapy News and Gene Therapy Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.