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Sea Slugs Slay Predators With Stored Toxins

Jan 25, 2016 10:46 AM EST
Sea Slugs
Sea slugs harbor toxic chemicals from their environment to defend against marine predators.
(Photo : Flickr: Bernard DUPONT)

Small, brightly colored sea slugs stockpile toxic chemicals from their environment to be used on enemies, according to researchers from the University of Queensland (UQ). For their latest study, five closely related nudibranchs, or sea slugs, were collected from the Great Barrier Reef and South East Queensland, Australia, and examined for their toxicity. 

"These carnivorous creatures are well-known to scuba divers for their beautiful colors and intricate patterns," Dr. Karen Cheney, one of the study researchers from UQ's School of Biological Sciences, said in a news release. "Science has known that many sea slugs obtain toxins from what they are eating, such as sponges, but in our study we found they selected only one toxin to store ‑ a particularly toxic compound called Latrunculin A." 

Researchers found that even the smallest amount of this deadly compound was enough to kill brine shrimp, which are small crustaceans that inhabit salty waters around the world. 

"Further tests conducted at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience demonstrated that this compound was more toxic to cancer cell lines than other compounds found in sea slugs," Cheney added. 

In addition to these chemical defenses, sea slugs are adorned with bright colors and patterns to ward off potential predations - similar to how poison dart frogs and brightly colored butterflies signal they are toxic. 

However, researchers are still unsure whether certain color patterns are related to the strength of one's chemical defenses. For instance, whether or not brighter sea slugs are more toxic then their dull counterparts, or if cryptic sea slugs that blend in with their environment obtain chemical defenses at all. 

Researchers also noted their findings, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, may be applicable to the medical field, where it can be used as a potential guide in conducting new cancer research.

"This [Latrunculin A] is a well-studied compound which kills cells. In this study we've uncovered a new use for it in an ecological context," Professor Mary Garson, study co-author from UQ's School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, added in the university' release.

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