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Sun powered slug.

The sea slug, Elysia chlorotica, looks like a leaf. But quirkier still, it acts like a leaf--capturing the sun's energy to make its own food. Now, scientists are on a quest to find out how a slug can run on solar power.

Plants power-up by using sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into food. This process of photosynthesis takes place in a plant's chloroplasts. Animals lack chloroplasts, so they get the nutrients they need by eating.

But E. chlorotica has a different strategy. When the sea slug feeds on its favorite seaweed, it swallows the plants' chloroplasts and stores them in its gut.

It takes about 2,000 genes (units of hereditary material) to get these tiny food factories running, says Mary Rumpho, a biochemist at the University of Maine at Orono. For plants, that's not a problem: Many of these genes are found in the nucleus of their cells. So where do the sea slugs get the genes to keep their stolen chloroplasts working?

Scientists speculate that millions of years ago, a sea slug may have incorporated some of the seaweed's genes into its own DNA (chemical that carries hereditary information). Over time, the genes got passed down to other sea slugs. Thus far, scientists have located just two of the genes that allow for photosynthesis in E. chlorotica--only 1,998 left to go.

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Title Annotation:LIFE/PHOTOSYNTHESIS; sea slug or Elysia chlorotica
Author:Jango-Cohen, Judith
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 23, 2009
Words:228
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