Science!: Murderous Robots and Pea Aphids

Lauren Admire | 10 May 2010 17:00

Amazing Pea Aphids Make Their Own Colors

The minuscule pea aphids are able to synthesize carotenoids, a feat once only achievable by vegetables. Carotenoids are the pigmentation you find in plants - the deep red of tomatoes and the bright orange of carrots.

Before the pea aphid, no animal was known to carry the necessary enzymes to produce their own carotenoids. Animals typically get carotenoids from ingestion, and the organic molecules are important in aiding eyesight, enhancing the immune system and harnessing free radicals. The most obvious use of carotenoids is in colorful ornamentation: Carotenoids are responsible for the pink of flamingos, the reds of clownfish and the oranges of puffin beaks.

Previously, scientists believed that pea aphids also ingested carotenoids in order to grow into a variety of colors, from green to red. However, the plants they eat do not contain the correct carotenoids to produce their specific coloration and the endosymbiotic bacteria within their digestive tract don't produce it either. So, where does it come from?

Recently, the entire pea aphid genome was decoded and geneticist Nancy Moran, from the University of Arizona, decided to sit down and took a look at it. She found the genes responsible for carotenoid synthesis in plants also present in the genome of the pea aphid. The aphids picked up these carrot-colored genes from fungi, but it's not sure exactly how.

"The DNA from a fungus went into the aphid somehow," says Moran, "and then stayed there and continued to function. Animals have a lot of requirements that reflect ancestral gene loss. This is why we require so many amino acids and vitamins in the diet. Until now it has been thought that there is simply no way to regain these lost capabilities. But this case in aphids shows that it is indeed possible to acquire the capacity to make needed compounds."

I don't think we humans will be turning colors anytime soon, but it's neat to think that we just may have the genes necessary to do so lurking somewhere in our genome.

Thanks Formica Archonis

Source: Byte Size Bio

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