Like many related sea slugs in the order Sacoglossa, Elysia species eat the sap from marine algae. They are unusual, however, in that many Elysia species can extract and maintain the chloroplasts, cellular components that the plants use to perform photosynthesis, in special structures within their bodies. This phenomenon of stolen chloroplasts is referred to as “kleptoplasty.”
There are many interesting questions regarding the evolutionary origins and biological mechanisms of kleptoplasty. As a neuroscientist, I am interested in adaptations of the nervous system. A lifestyle such as kleptoplasty, which allows Elysia to produce energy from sunlight, is expected to cause changes in behavior and neural circuitry to accommodate this novel resource. Studying unusual adaptations has repeatedly provided fundamental insight into biology, and I expect Elysia will teach us important lessons about the neural basis of behavior.
The goals of this project are:
1. To understand how behavior and information processing are altered in a photosynthetic animal
2. To develop Elysia as a model for teaching students about behavior, neurobiology, and ecology.
3. To understand how these animals, with their unique adaptions, respond to a changing world.