Dr. Mary Rumpho Kennedy
Professor of Biochemistry
Cooperating Professor in the School of Marine Sciences and Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
For years, the sea slug Elysia chlorotica has fascinated scientists because of its ability to retain “stolen” chloroplasts and carry out photosynthesis like a plant. Indeed, the emerald green marine mollusc looks like a plant leaf and only needs to eat algae early in its life cycle before making the big switcheroo and surviving on sunlight and air. Since 1987, University of Maine plant biochemist Mary Rumpho Kennedy has studied these solar-powered sea slugs found in saltwater marshes along the East Coast. Her recent ground-breaking research offers insight into the potential for evolution of photosynthesis in an animal through symbiosis and gene transfer. Rumpho Kennedy hopes to discover how the sea slug uses algal DNA in its system, as well as the minimum requirements for photosynthesis. Understanding why the sea slug’s immune system doesn’t attack the foreign DNA could lead to breakthroughs in understanding immunity and disease. If scientists can determine how such chloroplasts are able to avoid detection in the sea slug, they may be able to determine how parasites attack humans. Finding out how the algal DNA is integrated into the animal also could help unlock some of the secrets of gene expression and transfer between two unrelated species. In addition to sea slug research, Rumpho Kennedy’s lab is involved in the New England Invasive Plant Center, an initiative of the universities of Maine, Connecticut and Vermont. The center’s goals include development of noninvasive landscape plants and the assessment of the economic impact of invasive species in New England.
Image Description: Professor Mary Rumpho Kennedy