Plastids typically reside in plant or algal cells—with one notable exception. There is one group of multicellular animals, sea slugs in the order Sacoglossa, members of which feed on siphonaceous algae. The slugs sequester the ingested plastids in the cytosol of cells in their digestive gland, giving the animals the color of leaves. In a few species of slugs, including members of the genus Elysia, the stolen plastids (kleptoplasts) can remain morphologically intact for weeks and months, surrounded by the animal cytosol, which is separated from the plastid stroma by only the inner and outer plastid membranes. The kleptoplasts of the Sacoglossa are the only case described so far in nature where plastids interface directly with the metazoan cytosol. That makes them interesting in their own right, but it has also led to the idea that it might someday be possible to engineer photosynthetic animals. Is that really possible? And if so, how big would the photosynthetic organs of such animals need to be? Here we provide two sets of calculations: one based on a best case scenario assuming that animals with kleptoplasts can be, on a per cm2 basis, as efficient at CO2 fixation as maize leaves, and one based on14 CO2 fixation rates measured in plastid-bearing sea slugs. We also tabulate an overview of the literature going back to 1970 reporting direct measurements or indirect estimates of the CO2 fixing capabilities of Sacoglossan slugs with plastids.

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Keywords Elysia, Growth rate, Life cycle, Photosynthetic animal, Photosynthetic slugs, Sacoglossa
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Journal Frontiers in Plant Science
Rauch, C, Jahns, P, Tielens, A.G.M, Gould, D.B, & Martin, W.F. (2017). On being the right size as an animal with plastids. Frontiers in Plant Science, 8. doi:10.3389/fpls.2017.01402