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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Jul 12;108(28):11494-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1103906108. Epub 2011 Jun 27.

Mycosporine-like amino acids are multifunctional molecules in sea hares and their marine community.

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Neuroscience Institute, and Department of Biology, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA 30303, USA.


Molecules of keystone significance are relatively rare, yet mediate a variety of interactions between organisms. They influence the distribution and abundance of species, the transfer of energy across multiple trophic levels, and thus they play significant roles in structuring ecosystems. Despite their potential importance in facilitating our understanding of ecological systems, only three molecules thus far have been proposed as molecules of keystone significance: saxitoxin and dimethyl sulfide in marine communities and tetrodotoxin in riparian communities. In the course of studying the neuroecology of chemical defenses, we identified three mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs)--N-ethanol palythine (= asterina-330), N-isopropanol palythine (= aplysiapalythine A), and N-ethyl palythine (= aplysiapalythine B)--as intraspecific alarm cues for sea hares (Aplysia californica). These alarm cues are released in the ink secretion of sea hares and cause avoidance behaviors in neighboring conspecifics. Further, we show that these three bioactive MAAs, two [aplysiapalythine A (APA) and -B (APB)] being previously unknown molecules, are present in the algal diet of sea hares and are concentrated in their defensive secretion as well as in their skin. MAAs are known to be produced by algae, fungi, and cyanobacteria and are acquired by many aquatic animals through trophic interactions. MAAs are widely used as sunscreens, among other uses, but sea hares modify their function to serve a previously undocumented role, as intraspecific chemical cues. Our findings highlight the multifunctionality of MAAs and their role in ecological connectivity, suggesting that they may function as molecules of keystone significance in marine ecosystems.

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