This Pea Aphid Thinks it’s a Plant

Pea aphids can harness sunlight to aid in energy production

Pea aphid Photo: Shipher Wu

The teeny tiny pea aphid does a pretty good plant impersonation. In a new study lead by Jean-Christophe Valmalette researchers found that pea aphids, a subset of the tiny insects known for munching farmers’ crops, are able to harness sunlight to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cellular energy currency that haunted you throughout high school biology.

The aphids, as discussed by Nature, do not perform photosynthesis per se, as that would require the little bugs to pull carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into an organic carbon material. Instead, says Valmalette in the new study, chemicals known as carotenoids inside the aphids capture sunlight and produce electrons which then move within the insect’s cells and aid in the production of useable energy. The production of carotenoids is common in photosynthetic algae, bacteria, and fungi says Nature.

The pea aphids’ ability stands out from other “photosynthetic animals,” like the Elysia chlorotica sea slug, which eats algae and gains a rudimentary photosynthetic ability. The aphids are, according to Nature, the only animal that can produce their own carotenoids.


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