The Solar-Powered Salamander

By Daniel Manget

Spotted Salamander, Ambystoma maculatum

Yes, it’s as crazy as it sounds, a solar-powered Salamander, but not from solar panels but from Algae.  Green Algae and the Spotted Salamander Ambystoma maculatum have been known to have a tight symbiotic relationship but a recent discovery from a team of Scientists from Dalhousie University in Halifax Canada, led by Dr. Ryan Kerney, has determined that the relationship is much…much closer than previously thought.  Think plantphibian!


The Spotted Salamander is a commonly found Mole Salamander in North America, called that because of the family’s mad burrowing skills.  Green Algae, Oophila amblystomatis (Oophila meaning “loves eggs”), and this amazing little Salamander have been working together to survive for a long….long time.


Image from Henderson State University


The Green Algae, was discovered around a century ago, living inside the eggs of the developing Spotted Salamander embryo, taking in Carbon Dioxide and Nitrogen and producing Oxygen and Carbohydrates for the embryos to use.  This also gives the eggs a green color.  A recent discovery, however, has shown that this Green Algae not only lives inside the eggs but actually lives inside of the cells of the developing embryo itself!  This is the first time that Scientists have ever discovered a plant living inside of a vertebrate animal in a symbiotic relationship (called Endosymbiosis). For the first 2 weeks of life, the cells of the Algae live inside of the Salamander who receives the benefits of being a plant; free food and oxygen from the sun which basically makes it a… Salamander.


Dr. Kerney made this discovery through a process called florescent microscopy (using a florescent microscope).  Choloroplast, the green-almost-magical stuff in Chlorophyll that turns the Sun’s energy into food energy, is florescent which means the electrons in it will re-emit light for a moment after being exposed to certain light wavelength.  So he did just that and here is the picture that he produced.



Image from Dr. Ryan Kerney


So, how could a plant grow inside of a vertebrate’s cells without the immune system rejecting it as a foreign invader?  Intriguing because vertebrates are known for having sensitive immune systems that prevent this sort of thing from happening.  Well, Dr. Kerney (who discovered this amazing….discovery) said that they matched the same Algae from the embryos in the reproductive organs of the embryo’s  mother.  Meaning the Algae was probably passed down like genes would be.


Once again we see nature blurring the lines between the rigid categories that scientists love to create.


Kerney, R. et al. Intracellular invasion of green algae in a salamander host. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online before print April 4, 2011


Petherick A. 2010. A solar salamander: photosynthetic algae have been found inside the cells of a vertebrate for the first time. Nature.