Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Going Solar

It seems like the news on energy these days is all about solar. Solar collectors, community solar programs, solar getting cheaper than fossil fuel. Solar, solar, solar. We humans may think we're hot stuff for figuring out how to harvest the energy from the sun for our own needs, but other animals have been using their own kinds of solar panels for eons.

In particular, corals and sea anemones have been acting as green power plants since the times of the earliest dinosaurs. Which is pretty clever when you consider they don't have a brain. Of all the photosynthetic cnidarians out there my favorite has got to be the Aggregating Anemone (Anthopleura elegantissima) AKA the Pink-tipped Anemone.

You can probably guess how it got those names.
Courtesy: Bureau of Land Management via Flickr

If you live on or have visited the Pacific coast of North America, you probably recognize this anemone. They're extremely common very high in the intertidal zone. Which means that if you've ever visited a rocky beach when the tide was even a little low, you've probably encountered these anemones. They're often found in large aggregations, hence the name. These mats of anemones would be astonishing just for their sheer number, but they're even more incredible when you realize each colony is a series of clones.

Have you ever had one of those days where you're so ambivalent about a decision that you wish you could just tear yourself in two and do both? Well aggregating anemones basically have that luxury. They're so good at restoring their tissues after damage that they can literally pull themselves in two different directions and split into separate anemones.

"I weigh a fraction of what I used to, thanks to the elgantissima 
weight loss program!"
Courtesy: Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

If the conditions on a particular rock are good enough; one anemone will make many clones, which will make many clones, and so on, and so on until entire sections of beach are covered in copies of the original. These colonies work together to make each individual anemone more successful. Some anemones will specialize in spawning and produce more eggs and sperm than the other clones. Anemones at the edge of the colony will grow more stinging cells than those toward the center, and act as warriors to defend the colony from predators and other aggregating anemones trying to horn in on their turf. If Lenin had a spirit animal, it was probably pink-tipped anemones.

Fight, fight, fight! The white bulbs are sacks of densely packed
stinging cells used to ward of predators and other anemone colonies.
Courtesy: Brocken Inaglory via Wikipedia

Okay so aggregating anemones are pretty cool on their own, but what do all these adaptations have to do with collecting solar energy? Everything. Just under the skin of aggregating anemones live colonies of dinoflagellates, single-celled algae, or both. In the southern portions of the anemone's range you only find dinoflagellates in their tissues, but further north you find a combination of algae and dinoflagellates. We believe that the dinoflagellates are better able to tolerate warm water, and that the algae may help the anemone collect more sun where the days are shorter in fall and winter.

Dinoflagellates (pronounced: dai-no-fla-jell-ates) are a confusing single-celled organism that isn't quite animal and isn't quite plant. Most are a single cell with a wavy appendage like a sperm tail called a flagella. Many can both consume food and produce it via photosynthesis. The dinoflagellates under the skin of aggregating anemones are exclusively photosynthesizers and they're only found living in the tissues of cnidarians.

These individual cells work like the individual panels on a solar array. When exposed to sunlight each cell produces carbon and oxygen, both essential ingredients for the chemistry of life in complex organisms. Aggregating anemones harvest these products from their photosynthetic roomates just like electrical engineers harvest electricity from photovoltaic panels. In turn the anemone maintains the solar power plant by producing carbon dioxide, and waste. Carbon dioxide, which the anemone breathes out, is an essential ingredient in photosynthesis, and animal waste is full of the nutrients plants crave.

The anemone's green-blue color actually comes from the algae
and dinoflagellates in the skin. This clear one probably lives in 
the shade of a large boulder and so doesn't host photosynthesizers.
Courtesy: Peter Pearsall/USFWS via Flickr

Now it's not as easy being a living solar farm as it is being a synthetic one. Human solar arrays can be made of glass and other materials that resist wear and tear, but anemones and their symbiotic solar cells are made of good old squishy, damageable protein.

In order for their symbionts to do photosynthesis, aggregating anemones have to live where there's plenty of sun, hence their high position in the intertidal. However, as any fair-skinned individual can attest, sunlight is loaded with ultraviolet radiation which wreaks havoc on organic tissues. In order survive exposure to all that radiation aggregating anemones have to possess some unique defenses. Thankfully the dinoflagellates secrete a chemical that coats the anemone's cells and acts as a sunscreen. The chemical absorbs the most dangerous parts of the UV and dissipates them as softer visible light.

Of course they say help comes to those who help themselves, and the anemone pulls its own weight in protecting its investments. Along the sides of aggregating anemones are little sticky bumps called verrucae (pronounced: ver-oo-key). The anemone uses its verrucae pick up particles of shell, sand, and other materials. These bits act like a big floppy sun hat to protect the anemone's sensitive skin.

Who Wore it Better? Sandy Beach Edition.
Couretsy: A. Strakey & Diane Main via Flickr

 Even though the anemones have solved the sun exposure problem, there's even more challenges to running a living solar facility. Photosynthesis produces oxygen, which is great if your tide pool is getting hot and losing gas to the atmosphere, but not so great if you're cells start to fall apart from oxidation. Oxygen is a really powerful molecule because it often comes in a form you might of heard of called a free radical. Free radical oxygen has characteristics that make it pull other molecules apart, which is why oxygen is toxic in high concentrations. So if the algae and dinoflagellates are phtosythesizing away, pumping free radical oxygen almost directly into their hosts cells, the anemone could die of oxygen poisoning. Thankfully the anemone's body produces high concentrations of chemicals that bind with free radical oxygen and render it harmless.

The final challenge for an organism trying to run a biological green power facility brings us back to where we started at the anemone's position along the shore. Living high up the beach means that a couple of times a day the tide is going to go out on you. If you're an animal that's normally adapted to living underwater that's a challenge. The shells and sand grains on the anemone's stalk will help block some of the desiccating effects of the dry air, but it's not always enough; so aggregating anemones hold their breath. As the tide recedes the anemones suck as much water as they can into their body cavity to keep them moist and oxygenated while the water is out. If you've ever touched an aggregating anemone and it squirted you, you know what I'm talking about. Careful though, as making them spray their water is kind of like telling your friend to hold their breath and then punching them in the gut. Sure its funny as the air or water comes rushing out, but the anemone/guy who just got punched is left very winded and uncomfortable.

"Anemone Punch" The new album from Olympia punk band: Cnidaria 
Courtesy: Ingrid Taylor via Flickr

More and more, engineers are drawing inspiration from nature for building materials that improve our daily lives. If the flippers of humpback whales can make wind turbines more efficient, maybe we can draw inspiration from nature's original solar plants to improve other areas of green infrastructure. It's a beautiful irony that the fight to save species from climate change might be resolved by looking at the very animals we're trying to protect.


Furla et Al.. "The Symbiotic Anthazoan: A Physiological Chimera Between Alga and Animal", Integrative and Comparative Biology, vol. 45, issue 4, pg 594-604, 2005
Accessed via: 

Lajeunesse, T.C., & Trench R.K., "Biogeography of Two Species of Symbiodinium (Freudenthal) Inhabiting the Intertidal Sea Anemone Anthopleura elegantissima (Brandt)", The Biological Bulletin, vol. 199, no. 2, October 2000