New Species Discovery Alert: Pea Aphid Uses Photosynthesis to Harvest Energy from the Sun

By Anthony Smith on August 21, 2012 6:43 AM EDT

Pea Aphid
Recent findings may confirm that the pea aphid uses photosynthesis or a photosynthetic process to draw energy from the sun. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Looks like you're not the only one catching some rays this summer; meet this strange insect whose life depends on it.

As you probably remember from your high school biology class (or, if you're a scientist, your undergraduate biology class), photosynthesis is the process through which plants convert sunlight into the raw energy they need to survive.

Now, for the very first time ever, all of that's about to change: according to Nature magazine, scientists have discovered a new species of insect that uses a photosynthesis-like process inside of it to produce energy from the sun's rays.

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It may seem like this species is going to be some exotic thing they found under a rock on some island that probably isn't even on your atlas, but we're pretty delighted to report that you may not even have to leave your house to find this insect. It's the totally common pea aphid that's throwing the wrench into science's machine.

And surprisingly enough, its photosynthesis isn't even the weirdest thing about it. The pea aphid's been baffling entomologists for many years of study because, well, sometimes it's born pregnant and sometimes it's born without a mouth.

There's other weird stuff about it, too, but if we list them, you'll think we're probably just afraid of bugs. Not that we are, but... come on, look at it. It's so weird and translucent, like a radioactive snot rocket.

I digress. Its being born pregnant and sometimes without a mouth are pretty strange and cool, but there are other species that are born that way. What makes the pea aphid finding so spectacular is that it produces incredibly high levels of pigments known as carotenoids.

They're the only animal or insect known to produce carotenoids. In fact, the only reason you'd find carotenoids in an animal is because ze'd eaten a plant. And carotenoids are one of the most integral parts of the mechanism of photosynthesis in many organisms that use sunlight for energy.

For researchers at the Sophia Agrobiotech Institute in france, it stood to reason that if the insect produced carotenoids, then chances are they may be photosynthetic. As such, they tested for the frequency of ATP in pea aphids to see if there was a correlation with the frequency of carotenoids.

To their surprise, it turned out that the higher the level of carotenoids in pea aphids, the higher the level of ATP. What was even more compelling was that aphids that were placed in sunlight ended up producing more energy than ones not in the light. From these findings, it seems that sunlight does have a strong correlation with carotenoid levels and ATP levels in pea aphids. It seems like they do undergo photosynthesis to draw energy from the sun.

If this ends up being proven true, then the pea aphid will hold the distinction of being the first insect in the world known to use photosynthetic mechanisms to produce its energy. It shares that strange distinction with coral and one species of salamander.

So next time you step on one of these, think about how unlike any other member of the insect kingdom it is. And maybe let it live. After all, it was born pregnant and mouthless, so it really is the least you can do.

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