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.
"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.
"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.
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."