If you looked at a sea slug, like the Elysia chloroctica very few people would even realize they’re looking at a sea slug. Instead, most people would think they’re looking at a leaf. Turns out there’s very good reason for that. The bright green sea slug looks like a leaf and even lives like one, too. The sea slug even uses photosynthesis to generate energy, and it does so by stealing chloroplasts from algae that are around the sea slug. However, scientists have had a good idea of this theft going on since the 1970s. So, that isn’t necessarily news per se. Something though that scientists didn’t know before was the fact that the sea slug is stealing much more than just chloroplasts.
They’re stealing entire genes to ensure that these processes can continue inside the body of the slug. Researchers found that when the slugs consume algae there are cells inside of their stomach that allow them to hang onto more chloroplasts, effectively boosting their overall numbers inside their body. Sidney K. Pierce, of the University of South Florida and the University of Maryland, who was the co-author of the study pointed out that “It’s been known for a long time that this particular group of sea slugs has a symbiotic relationship with chloroplasts they get from the algae they eat.”
Interestingly though, there are a lot of species that commit this type of feeding, and all of them have different patterns when it comes to maintaining this process. However, as each species has their pace that they make this process happen – the sea slugs are also utilizing stolen genes from the alga that they consume. The sea slug then is able to produce an enzyme that allows the chloroplasts which are consumed to be preserved. While plants often struggle to maintain the chloroplasts in their system – because photosynthesis is such a destructive process – these sea slugs are able to maintain something, and do something that even plants haven’t been able to master. Oddly enough, the sea slug has managed to do something that is native to plants – better than plants do it themselves.