First solar-powered vertebrate discovered – the salamander Ambystoma maculatum

solar

When you think about it, animals are weird. They ignore the abundant source of energy above their heads – the sun – and choose instead to invest vast amounts of energy in cumbersome equipment for eating and digesting food. Why don’t they do what plants do, and get their energy straight from sunlight?

The short answer is that many do. Corals are animals but have algae living in them that use sunlight to make sugar. Many other animals, from sponges to sea slugs, pull the same trick. One species of hornet can convert sunlight into electricity. There are also suggestions that aphids can harness sunlight, although most biologists are unconvinced.

But all these creatures are only distantly related to us. No backboned animal has been found that can harness the sun – until now. It has long been suspected, and now there is hard evidence: the spotted salamander is solar-powered.

Plants make food using photosynthesis, absorbing light to power a chemical reaction that converts carbon dioxide and water into glucose and releases oxygen. Corals profit from this reaction by housing photosynthetic algae inside their shells.

Spotted salamanders, too, are in a long-term relationship with photosynthetic algae. In 1888, biologist Henry Orr reported that their eggs often contain single-celled green algae called Oophila amblystomatis. The salamanders lay the eggs in pools of water, and the algae colonise them within hours.

By the 1940s, biologists strongly suspected it was a symbiotic relationship, beneficial to both the salamander embryos and the algae. The embryos release waste material, which the algae feed on. In turn the algae photosynthesise and release oxygen, which the embryos take in. Embryos that have more algae are more likely to survive and develop faster than embryos with few or none.

Then in 2011 the story gained an additional twist. A close examination of the eggs revealed that some of the algae were living within the embryos themselves, and in some cases were actually inside embryonic cells. That suggested the embryos weren’t just taking oxygen from the algae: they might be taking glucose too. In other words, the algae were acting as internal power stations, generating fuel for the salamanders.

To find out if that was happening, Erin Graham of Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and colleagues incubated salamander eggs in water containing radioactive carbon-14. Algae take up the isotope in the form of carbon dioxide, producing radioactive glucose.

Graham found that the embryos became mildly radioactive – unless kept in the dark. That showed that the embryos could only take in the carbon-14 via photosynthesis in the algae.

The algae do not seem to be essential to the embryos, but they are very helpful: embryos deprived of algae struggle. “Their survival rate is much lower and their growth is slowed,” says Graham.

It’s less clear how well the algae get on without the embryos. In the lab, they transform into dormant cysts. The salamander eggs are only around in spring, suggesting that in the wild, the algae spend the rest of the year as cysts. The ponds they live in dry up in summer, so the algae may sit out the rest of the year in the sediment.

Now that one vertebrate has been shown to use photosynthesis, Graham says there could well be others. “Anything that lays eggs in water would be a good candidate,” she says, as algae would have easy access to the eggs. So other amphibians, and fish, could be doing it. It’s much less likely that a mammal or bird could photosynthesise, as their developing young are sealed off from the outside world.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn23090-zoologger-the-first-solarpowered-vertebrate.html

‘Scarecrow’ Gene: Key to Efficient Crops, Could Lead to Staple Crops With Much Higher Yields

scarecrow gene
Cross section of a mature maize leaf showing Kranz (German for wreath) anatomy around a large vein. The bundle sheath cells (lighter red) encircle the vascular core (light blue). Mesophyll cells (dark red) encircle the bundle sheath cells. The interaction and cooperation between the mesophyll and bundle sheath is essential for the C4 photosynthetic mechanism. (Credit: Thomas Slewinski)

With projections of 9.5 billion people by 2050, humankind faces the challenge of feeding modern diets to additional mouths while using the same amounts of water, fertilizer and arable land as today.

Cornell researchers have taken a leap toward meeting those needs by discovering a gene that could lead to new varieties of staple crops with 50 percent higher yields.

The gene, called Scarecrow, is the first discovered to control a special leaf structure, known as Kranz anatomy, which leads to more efficient photosynthesis. Plants photosynthesize using one of two methods: C3, a less efficient, ancient method found in most plants, including wheat and rice; and C4, a more efficient adaptation employed by grasses, maize, sorghum and sugarcane that is better suited to drought, intense sunlight, heat and low nitrogen.

“Researchers have been trying to find the underlying genetics of Kranz anatomy so we can engineer it into C3 crops,” said Thomas Slewinski, lead author of a paper that appeared online in November in the journal Plant and Cell Physiology. Slewinski is a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of senior author Robert Turgeon, professor of plant biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The finding “provides a clue as to how this whole anatomical key is regulated,” said Turgeon. “There’s still a lot to be learned, but now the barn door is open and you are going to see people working on this Scarecrow pathway.” The promise of transferring C4 mechanisms into C3 plants has been fervently pursued and funded on a global scale for decades, he added.

If C4 photosynthesis is successfully transferred to C3 plants through genetic engineering, farmers could grow wheat and rice in hotter, dryer environments with less fertilizer, while possibly increasing yields by half, the researchers said.

C3 photosynthesis originated at a time in Earth’s history when the atmosphere had a high proportion of carbon dioxide. C4 plants have independently evolved from C3 plants some 60 times at different times and places. The C4 adaptation involves Kranz anatomy in the leaves, which includes a layer of special bundle sheath cells surrounding the veins and an outer layer of cells called mesophyll. Bundle sheath cells and mesophyll cells cooperate in a two-step version of photosynthesis, using different kinds of chloroplasts.

By looking closely at plant evolution and anatomy, Slewinski recognized that the bundle sheath cells in leaves of C4 plants were similar to endodermal cells that surrounded vascular tissue in roots and stems.

Slewinski suspected that if C4 leaves shared endodermal genes with roots and stems, the genetics that controlled those cell types may also be shared. Slewinski looked for experimental maize lines with mutant Scarecrow genes, which he knew governed endodermal cells in roots. When the researchers grew those plants, they first identified problems in the roots, then checked for abnormalities in the bundle sheath. They found that the leaves of Scarecrow mutants had abnormal and proliferated bundle sheath cells and irregular veins.

In all plants, an enzyme called RuBisCo facilitates a reaction that captures carbon dioxide from the air, the first step in producing sucrose, the energy-rich product of photosynthesis that powers the plant. But in C3 plants RuBisCo also facilitates a competing reaction with oxygen, creating a byproduct that has to be degraded, at a cost of about 30-40 percent overall efficiency. In C4 plants, carbon dioxide fixation takes place in two stages. The first step occurs in the mesophyll, and the product of this reaction is shuttled to the bundle sheath for the RuBisCo step. The RuBisCo step is very efficient because in the bundle sheath cells, the oxygen concentration is low and the carbon dioxide concentration is high. This eliminates the problem of the competing oxygen reaction, making the plant far more efficient.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130124134051.htm