Sea Slug 'Lives Like a Plant' by Stealing DNA From Algae and Using It for Photosynthesis

Slug or leaf? This bizarre creature can live like an animal or a plant. EOL Learning and Education Group [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

What if you could gain the powers of the organisms that you eat? You could breath under water by eating fish, garner super strength by munching on bear meat, blend in with your environment by swallowing a chameleon, or fly by consuming a bird. Unfortunately none of this is possible, despite the superstitious claims of some cultures. But that's just because you're human. But if you were an emerald sea slug, that's another story.

Yes, that's right, there really is at least one animal that can steal the powers of the organisms it eats: the emerald sea slug, Elysia chlorotica, and scientists have finally learned this bizarre creature's secrets, reports Tech Times.

It turns out that the sea slug is capable of stealing both the genes and cell organelles that are responsible for photosynthesis from the algae. This allows the slug to temporarily give up its life as an animal and instead "live like a plant," absorbing all the nourishment it needs from the sun. The finding represents the first known example of horizontal gene transfer in multicellular organisms.

For the study, researchers used advanced imaging technology to spot a gene on the chromosome of the emerald sea slug that came from the algae it eats.

The gene in question is particularly important because it is known to produce an enzyme that plays a key role in the function of chloroplasts, which are the organelles that conduct photosynthesis in both plants and algae. Interestingly, the sea slug also absorbs the algae's chloroplasts into its own cells. So it steals everything it needs to both produce energy from the sun and to maintain that cellular infrastructure over time.

In fact, the sea slug does not need to continually consume algae to retain its powers. It is capable of maintaining photosynthesis for as long as nine months, which is incidentally a longer period of time than algae can maintain the same structures.

Even more remarkable, the sea slug can pass some of the ability it gains to the next generation.

"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," explained Sidney Pierce from the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida, lead author on the paper. "The gene is incorporated into the slug chromosome and transmitted to the next generation of slugs."