N. Shubin's Your Inner Fish makes the point several times that there is a lot of functional similarity between some seemingly remote gene cousins. If that needed reinforcing we have the spider-goat, whose milk contains spider's silk, and a knock-in mouse whose vision resembles that of humans.

The last two examples are interesting because, as I recall, nothing beyond the gene insertion (already a feat) had to be done to confer the extra/new capability. The machinery at the cellular level (for the mouse to perceive a new color or for the goat to somehow process the milk) already existed.

My question is whether it might not be possible in theory to create a mammal with the ability to photosynthesize? If this is a polygenic trait perhaps it would be accomplished in multiple stages. I realize an answer here would be highly speculative but a careful answer might cast some light on the process of conferring new traits/abilities in this way.

While I see no obvious benefit of creating a photosynthesizing mouse, at least the food bills for their maintenance might be low. This sounds like a joke but it's not a trivial benefit.

Thanks for any insights.

  • $\begingroup$ Maybe the answer is, "This is not possible because..." That would also be interesting to me. $\endgroup$ – daniel May 27 '14 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ also read about kleptoplasty $\endgroup$ – The Last Word May 27 '14 at 9:23

It is almost impossible for following reasons:

  1. For photosynthesis you need chloroplasts
  2. To maintain chloroplasts you need many genes in the nucleus that will support its endosymbiosis

I said almost impossible because there are some natural examples of what you are asking. A sea slug called Elysia acquires choloplasts from green algae on which it feeds. However, it cannot maintain the chloroplasts and pass them on to the next generation but it acquires enough to appear green and survive on photosynthesis when there is no food.

Another example is that of the protist, Rhopalodia gibba, which acquired a cyanobacteria like organism. This protist already had a red alga derived secondary plastid before it acquired a "green" cyanobacteria. This acquisition gave the host the ability to fix nitrogen in the presence of light.

The case of Paulinella chromatophora is very interesting because the acquisition of an endosymbiont happened very recently. The endosymbiont is close to Synechococcus clade of cyanobacteria.

Intuitively, it can be understood that these kinds of acquisitions would be quite difficult for a multicellular organism.


Photosynthesis is a complex reaction which requires a dedicated compartment which not only harvests light and produces ATP but also has enzyme complexes required for anabolism (carbon fixation etc). For now we can accept the hypothesis that it would not be possible for a huge eukaryotic cell to perform these functions in absence of a dedicated organelle. For a discussion on why this is so, you can refer this post. Having said that, there is an easy way to impart partial photosynthetic ability to a eukaryotic cell. Some archaea and bacteria employ rhodopsin to pump out protons against its gradient, in the presence of light; this is coupled with ATP-synthase just like the complexes of ETC in mitochondria. In this study, Hara et al have expressed delta-rhodopsin in mammalian mitochondia which now makes the mitochondria generate ATP in presence of light. Furthermore, these cells were immune to mitochondrial toxins that affect complex-I activity.

PS: thanks biogirl. I almost forgot about this and I just remembered when I was reading about something else

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    $\begingroup$ Chloroplast isn't a necessity for photosynthesis. It takes place without it in many prokaryotes. So although I agree with most of your answer, if someone does try to make photosynthesizing mammals I don't think it would be necessary to make chloroplast. $\endgroup$ – biogirl May 27 '14 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ A question : Would it be easier to incorporate so many genes for all the photosynthesis procedures or to try to insert a chloroplast and then maintain it ? $\endgroup$ – biogirl May 27 '14 at 13:27
  • $\begingroup$ yes I agree that there are other mechanisms of photosynthesis (non cyanobacterial like) but i was referring to the one that is most common in eukaryotes. Having said so there are different kinds of chloroplasts in eukaryotes too (red algae vs green algae). Plus prokaryotes cannot have chloroplasts- no explanation required. In short plastids are more diverse than mitochondria and chloroplast is just a term for an organelle which can have diverse evolutionary origins. $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG May 28 '14 at 4:06
  • $\begingroup$ @biogirl see the edit.. I have added some more information. Nonetheless, chloroplast (and its ancestral free living cyanobacteria) with its light harvesting photosystems, is still one of the most efficient photosynthetic apparatus in nature. $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG May 29 '14 at 9:40
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    $\begingroup$ Also chloroplast photosystem has higher efficiency than rhodopsin based systems $\endgroup$ – WYSIWYG May 29 '14 at 10:28

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