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Biologists find world's first organism with non-photosynthesizing chlorophyll

"We don't know why these organisms are holding on to these photosynthesis genes," researcher Waldan Kwong said.

By
Brooks Hays
Scientists discovered a unique chlorophyll-producing but non-photosynthesizing organism living in the gastric cavity of coral. Photo by Keeling Lab/UBC
Scientists discovered a unique chlorophyll-producing but non-photosynthesizing organism living in the gastric cavity of coral. Photo by Keeling Lab/UBC

April 4 (UPI) -- Scientists have discovered the world's first organism that can produce chlorophyll but does not perform photosynthesis.

The unprecedented animal is called a corallicolid because it is found in 70 percent of the planet's corals.

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"This is the second most abundant cohabitant of coral on the planet and it hasn't been seen until now," Patrick Keeling, a botanist at the University of British Columbia, said in a news release. "This organism poses completely new biochemical questions. It looks like a parasite, and it's definitely not photosynthetic. But it still makes chlorophyll."

Chlorophyll is a green pigment that absorbs energy from sunlight. The process of photosynthesis converts the absorbed energy into food.

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"Having chlorophyll without photosynthesis is actually very dangerous because chlorophyll is very good at capturing energy, but without photosynthesis to release the energy slowly it is like living with a bomb in your cells," Keeling said.

Corallicolid is a member of a large phylum of parasites named Apicomplexa. Members of the phylum use an organelle called a plastid, a membrane-bound organelle where cholorphyll is produced and photosynthesis takes place.

Scientists have previously identified photosynthetic algae in healthy corals. Keeling and his colleagues hypothesize that corallicolid, a parasite, may have evolved from friend to foe.

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The novel organism, described this week in the journal Nature, not only boasts a plastid, but also all four genes that code for the synthesis of cholorphyll.

"It's quite a head scratcher," said lead study author Waldan Kwong, a UBC postdoctoral research fellow. "We don't know why these organisms are holding on to these photosynthesis genes. There's some novel biology going on here, something we haven't seen before."

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