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2017 SMRT Grant Finalist

The climate-friendly ‘solar-powered’ sea slug

Principal Investigators:
Carola Greve, Centre of Molecular Biodiversity Research, Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, Bonn, Germany
Alexander Donath, Centre of Molecular Biodiversity Research, Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, Bonn, Germany

About This Project

‘Solar-powered’ sea slugs. Fiction or reality? Elysia timida is an enigmatic sea slug species able to ‘steal’ and maintain the chloroplasts of its food algae. How do they keep the chloroplasts active, which continuously produce starch? No one knows! But this extraordinary strategy allows the slugs to survive months of starvation. We therefore gathered a highly skilled team to reveal the genetic basis that allows these slugs to maintain plant organelles.

Why is this the most interesting genome in the world?
The ‘solar-powered’ sea slug Elysia timida is no beast of fiction. It is a real Mediterranean sacoglossan that has the ability to ‘steal’ chloroplasts – the little solar-panels where photosynthesis takes place – from its algal food source. These ‘stolen’ plastids are then stored in a still functional state in the slug’s digestive gland cells, allowing the slug to endure at least 3 months of starvation. During this time the chloroplasts continue photosynthesis and build up a starch reservoir that finally can be used by the slug. This spectacular phenomenon, termed functional kleptoplasty, is unique among animals, and with this extraordinary evolutionary feature, E. timida stands for a climate- and eco-friendly lifestyle. The genetic basis enabling this lifestyle, however, remains poorly understood.

 

What are the goals of this project?
Our primary goal is to sequence the complete genome of Elysia timida to study the ‘enslavement’ of intact chloroplasts, using the latest PacBio SMRT Sequencing technology. This ‘solar-powered’ sea slug is a viable model system, whose entire life cycle is easily traceable under laboratory conditions. The high-quality, contiguous reference genome will allow researchers to search for and identify genes related to kleptoplasty. Furthermore, it will enhance our understanding of “kleptomaniac” organisms that incorporate toxic chemicals, organelles (like cnidocysts), or whole organisms (like Symbiodinium), from their food into their tissues. Genome annotation will be done by our highly experienced team of biologists, chemists, and bioinformaticians. The process will be supported by available transcriptomic data. We will make our findings available in an easily accessible format for professional and citizen scientists!

 

What is the global impact of your research?
One of the key questions is how genomic features of this small ‘solar-panel’ thief have evolved with regard to incorporation and exploitation of functional chloroplasts. The complete genome sequence of Elysia timida will give us the unique chance to gain new insights into underlying genomic mechanisms related to kleptoplasty. It will further provide a valuable genomic resource for future genome-wide comparative analyses to organisms with similar lifestyles, i.e. those stealing useful parts out of their prey and incorporating, instead of digesting them: E. timida, shell-less but not defenseless, also steals and produces secondary metabolites to become unpalatable for predators (kleptochemicals). Our team will therefore also search for genes related to toxin metabolism and defense with potential biomedical impacts.
Project Team (in addition to PIs)

  • Gregor Christa, Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies (CESAM), University of Aveiro, Portugal
  • Max Cruesemann, Institut für Pharmazeutische Biologie, University of Bonn, Germany
  • Michael Hackenberg, Department of Genetics, Faculty of Science, University of Granada, Spain
  • Dario Karmeinski, Centre of Molecular Biodiversity Research, Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, Bonn, Germany
  • Gabriele M. König, Institut für Pharmazeutische Biologie, University of Bonn, Germany
  • Elise Laetz, Centre of Molecular Biodiversity Research, Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, Bonn, Germany
  • Frank Lyko, Division of Epigenetics, University of Heidelberg, Germany
  • Bernhard Misof, Centre of Molecular Biodiversity Research, Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, Bonn, Germany
  • Lars Podsiadlowski, Institut für Evolutionsbiologie & Ökologie, University of Bonn, Germany
  • Till F. Schäberle, Institute for Insectbiotechnology, Justus-Liebig-University Giessen, Germany
  • João Serôdio, Centre for Environmental and Marine Studies (CESAM), University of Aveiro, Portugal
  • Jan de Vries, Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Archibald Lab, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada
  • Heike Wägele, Centre of Molecular Biodiversity Research, Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, Bonn, Germany
  • Tanja Ziesmann, Centre of Molecular Biodiversity Research, Zoological Research Museum Alexander Koenig, Bonn, Germany

 

Additional Resources
Watch a brief video about this project.
See the solar sea slug stealing sustenance.

 

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