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Plantimals

August 17, 2012

Rheanna Sand

 

Most of us have heard about, and are fascinated by, plants that behave like animals. They can't walk around like Treebeard, but species like the Venus Flytrap or the Pitcher Plant can capture and digest whole insects for their own, sick pleasure (oh, and to supplement their amino acid supply due to the low nitrogen content of the soil of their native habitats).

Less well known, or cared about, are animals that behave like plants. While I have previously written on the topic of people in a persistent vegetative state, this isn't the kind of "plant-like" behavior I'm talking about. I'm referring to animals performing the very feat that makes plants so darned special - photosynthesis! One of the first things we learn in biology is that plants convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into sugars, while animals hijack this miracle and eat up the sugars, thank you very much, is there anything in my teeth?

But for a while now, biologists have suspected that aphids (those tiny, colorful bugs that live on leaves and get all over your windshield if you park under a big tree) may have this capability. This is because they carry the same kind of pigments as some plants - rich greens and oranges that our leafy friends use to harness certain wavelengths of light for energy. These pigments, called carotenoids, are very expensive to make, so why would aphids spend the energy to make them? Strictly for fashion? Probably not.

To help solve the puzzle, entomologist Alain Robichon and colleagues investigated how much ATP, the metabolic "fuel" for cells, was produced in different colored aphids. Green bugs (those with the most pigment) produced the most ATP, and even more striking, orange bugs with less pigment made more ATP when put into sunlight and less after being placed in the dark.

There is still much work to be done to confirm that aphids truly photosynthesize, but these results point to a remarkable, unique discovery in the animal kingdom. But if it's true, there is still the lingering question as to why aphids would need to use sunlight for energy, given they have such a sugar-filled diet. Perhaps all the messaging about sugary drinks is finally sinking in to the bug community?

 

Ah, insects: amazing, puzzling, disgusting, and creepy, all at the same time.

 

(Photo credit: Richard Bartz)

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