Few animals are capable of photosynthesis, and until recently it was thought to be an impossible task among vertebrates. However, the yellow spotted salamander, Ambystoma maculatuma, a species common in North America, is capable of using the sun to create energy while in the embryonic phase of life thanks to a symbiotic relationship with algae.
Researchers found that as the tiny salamander develops inside the egg, algae enters the egg and the embryo itself, where a mutually beneficial relationship based on nitrogen and oxygen occurs.
ZME Science explains:
Once in the salamander, the algae stick near its mitochondria. Mitochondria create energy for animal cells from oxygen and a metabolic form of glucose. The algae appear to be giving oxygen and carbohydrates (the products of photosynthesis) directly to the salamander cells that contain them. The salamander could be using these byproducts to help its own energy production. In return, the embryo gives the algae nitrogen-rich waste and CO2. The algae have also been found in the oviducts of female spotted salamanders. The mother may have the algae already and be passing it down to its offspring by putting it into the egg sac.
Learning more about how this salamander species — and possibly other species as well — can have such an unusual symbiotic relationship with algae within the embryo will help reveal more about how vertebrates learn to recognize their own cells versus foreign cells such as bacteria or viruses that set off an immune response.
"It may be that specialized cells in these adult salamanders are able to accommodate algae inside them because the process by which they learn self-recognition is different from that of other vertebrates," notes the journal Nature.
It's clear there's a lot we have to learn about how yellow spotted salamanders incorporate the power of photosynthesis into their growth process.