Chemical defenses in Sacoglossan Opisthobranchs: Taxonomic trends and evolutionary implications
Keywords:Sacoglossa, chemical defense, evolution
Sacoglossan sea slugs (Mollusca: Opisthobranchia) are one of the few groups of specialist herbivores in the marine environment. Sacoglossans feed suctorially on the cell sap of macroalgae, from which they "steal" chloroplasts (kleptoplasty) and deterrent substances (kleptochemistry), retaining intracellularly both host plastids and chemicals. The ingested chloroplasts continue to photosynthesize for periods ranging from a few hours or days up to 3 months in some species. Shelled, more primitive sacoglossans feed only on the siphonalean green algal genus Caulerpa, and they do not have functional kleptoplasty. The diet of sacoglossans has radiated out from this ancestral food. Among the shell-less Plakobranchidae (=Elysiidae), the more primitive species feed on other siphonales (families Derbesiaceae, Caulerpaceae, Bryopsidaceae and Codiaceae) and fix carbon, while the more "advanced" species within the Plakobranchidae and Limapontioidae have a more broad dietary range. Most of these "advanced" species are unable to fix carbon because the chloroplasts of their food algae are mechanically disrupted during ingestion. Mesoherbivores are likely to be eaten if they live on palatable seaweeds, their cryptic coloration and form not always keeping them safe from predators. Sacoglossans prefer to live on and eat chemically defended seaweeds, and they use ingested algal chemicals as deterrents of potential predators. The most ancestral shelled sacoglossans (Oxynoidae) and some Plakobranchidae such as Elysia translucens, Thuridilla hopei and Bosellia mimetica have developed a diet-derived chemical defense mechanism. Oxynoids and Thuridilla hopei are able to biomodify the algal metabolites. However, the Plakobranchidae Elysia timida and E. viridis, together with Limapontioidea species, are characterized by their ability to de novo synthesize polypropionate metabolites. A whole analysis of kleptoplasty and chemical defenses in sacoglossans may offer a better understanding of the ecology and evolution of these specialized opisthobranchs. In this paper we summarize some of the latest findings, related mainly to Mediterranean species, and offer a plausible evolutionary scenario based on the biological and chemical trends we can distinguish in them.
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