Sea slugs living as both animals and plants could provide clues to innate immunityby by Aimee Doloff | Photography by Mary Rumpho-Kennedy and Dan Lineberger
It will take more research to determine why the sea slug’s immune system doesn’t attack the foreign chloroplasts or DNA, but the discovery could lead to breakthroughs in understanding immunity and disease.
If scientists can determine how the chloroplasts are able to avoid detection in the sea slug, they may be able to determine how parasites are able to attack humans.
Continuation of her research is made easier now that Rumpho-Kennedy and her students have the ability to raise sea slugs through the entire life cycle in the lab and conduct more extensive DNA testing.
“New technology allows us to sequence massive amounts of DNA,”Rumpho-Kennedy says. “We want to see to what extent there’s been gene transfer from the alga to the slug.”
In addition, understanding how the algal DNA gets integrated into the animal will unravel a lot about how the expression of genes is controlled, Rumpho-Kennedy says.
Symbiosis leads to the evolution of new traits, such as lichens that are a combination of fungi and algae. With symbiosis occurring between an animal and a plant, the result is an animal that can photosynthesize and live like a plant.
“What I think way down the road is that the chloroplasts and algal genes in the sea slugs will be inherited,” Rumpho-Kennedy says.