pH alters the swimming behaviors of the raphidophyte Heterosigma akashiwo: implications for bloom formation in an acidified ocean

We investigated the effects of pH on movement behaviors of the harmful algal bloom causing raphidophyte Heterosigma akashiwo. Motility parameters from >8000 swimming tracks of individual cells were quantified using 3D digital video analysis over a 6-h period in 3 pH treatments reflecting marine carbonate chemistry during the pre-industrial era, currently, and the year 2100. Movement behaviors were investigated in two different acclimation-to-target-pH conditions: instantaneous exposure and acclimation of cells for at least 11 generations. There was no negative impairment of cell motility when exposed to elevated PCO2 (i.e., low pH) conditions but there were significant behavioral responses. Irrespective of acclimation condition, lower pH significantly increased downward velocity and frequency of downward swimming cells (p < 0.001). Rapid exposure to lower pH resulted in 9% faster downward vertical velocity and up to 19% more cells swimming downwards (p < 0.001). Compared to pH-shock experiments, pre-acclimation of cells to target pH resulted in ~30% faster swimming speed and up to 46% faster downward velocities (all p < 0.001). The effect of year 2100 PCO2 levels on population diffusivity in pre-acclimated cultures was >2-fold greater than in pH-shock treatments (2.2 × 105 μm2 s−1 vs. 8.4 × 104 μm2 s−1). Predictions from an advection-diffusion model, suggest that as PCO2 increased the fraction of the population aggregated at the surface declined, and moved deeper in the water column. Enhanced downward swimming of H. akashiwo at low pH suggests that these behavioral responses to elevated PCO2 could reduce the likelihood of dense surface slick formation of H. akashiwo through reductions in light exposure or growth independent surface aggregations. We hypothesize that the HAB alga’s response to higher PCO2 may exploit the signaling function of high PCO2 as indicative of net heterotrophy in the system, thus indicative of high predation rates or depletion of nutrients.

Kim H., Spivack A. J. & Menden-Deuer S., in press. pH alters the swimming behaviors of the raphidophyte Heterosigma akashiwo: implications for bloom formation in an acidified ocean. Harmful Algae. Article (subscription required).

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