Temperate and cold water sea urchin species in an acidifying world: coping with change?

Anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are increasing the atmospheric CO2 concentration and the oceans are absorbing around 1/3 them. The CO2 hydrolysis increases the H+ concentration, decreasing the pH, while the proportions of the HCO3- and CO32- ions are also affected. This process already led to a decrease of 0.1 pH units in surface seawater. According to “business-as-usual” models, provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the pH is expected to decrease 0.3-0.5 units by 2100 and 0.7-0.8 by 2300. As a result the surface ocean carbonates chemistry will also change: with increasing pCO2, dissolved inorganic carbon will increase and the equilibrium of the carbonate system will shift to higher CO2 and HCO3– levels, while CO32– concentration will decrease. Surface seawaters will progressively become less saturated towards calcite and aragonite saturation state and some particular polar and cold water regions could even become completely undersaturated within the next 50 years.

Responses of marine organisms to environmental hypercapnia, i.e. to an excess of CO2 in the aquatic environment, can be extremely variable and the degree of sensitivity varies between species and life stages. Sea urchins are key stone species in many marine ecosystems. They are considered to be particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification effects not only due to the nature of their skeleton (magnesium calcite) whose solubility is similar or higher than that of aragonite, but also because they lack an efficient ion regulatory machinery, being therefore considered poor acid-base regulators. Populations from polar regions are expected to be at an even higher risk since the carbonate chemical changes in surface ocean waters are happening there at a faster rate.

The goal of this work was to study the effects of low seawater pH exposure of different life stages of sea urchins, in order to better understand how species from different environments and/or geographic origins would respond and if there would be scope for possible adaptation and/or acclimatization.

In a first stage we investigated the effects of ocean acidification on the early stages of an intertidal species from temperate regions, the Atlantic Paracentrotus lividus sea urchin, and of a sub-Antarctic species, Arbacia dufresnei. The fertilization, larval development and larval growth were studied on specimens submitted through different pH experimental treatments. The fertilization rate of P. lividus gametes whose progenitors came from a tide pool with high pH decrease was significantly higher, indicating a possible acclimatization or adaptation of gametes to pH stress. Larval size in both species decreased significantly in low pH treatments. However, smaller A. dufresnei echinoplutei were isometric to those of control treatments, showing that size reduction was most likely due to a slower growth rate. In the pH 7.4 (predicted for 2300) treatment, P. lividus presented significantly more abnormal forms than control ones, but A. dufresnei did not. The latter does not seem to be more vulnerable than temperate species, most likely due to acclimatization/adaptation to lower pH seasonal fluctuations experienced by individuals of this population during spring time.

In a second stage, adult physiological responses of P. lividus and A. dufresnei to low pH seawaters were studied. Intertidal field P. lividus specimens can experience pH fluctuations of 0.4 units during low tidal cycles, but their coelomic fluid pH will not change. During experimental exposure to low pH, the coelomic fluid (extracellular) pH of both species decreased after weeks of exposure to low seawater pH. However, it owned a certain buffer capacity (higher than that of seawater) which did not seem to be related to passive skeleton dissolution. In laboratory studies, the feeding rate of P. lividus, the RNA/DNA ratio (proxy for protein synthesis and thus metabolism) of both the gonads and the body wall of the studied species and the carbonic anhydrase activity in the body wall (an enzyme involved in calcification and respiratory processes) of A. dufresnei did not differ according to seawater pH. The same was true for spine regeneration (a proxy for calcification) of both species. This shows that both P. lividus and A. dufresnei are able to cope when exposed to mild hypercapnia (lowest investigated pH 7.4) for a mid-term period of time (weeks). In a different set of experiments, pH effects were tested on P. lividus individuals together with two temperatures (10ºC and 16ºC). The pH decrease of the coelomic fluid did not vary between temperatures, neither did its buffer response. The oxygen uptake rates of P. lividus (as a proxy for global metabolic state of the whole organism) increased in lower pH treatments (7.7 and 7.4) in organisms exposed to lower temperatures (10ºC), showing that this was upregulated and that organisms experienced a higher energetic demand to maintain normal physiological functions. For instance, gonad production (given by the RNA/DNA ratio) was not affected neither by temperature, nor pH.

Finally, possible morphological and chemical adaptations of cidaroid (“naked”) spines, which are not covered by epidermis, to low magnesium calcite saturation states were investigated. Deep sea field specimens from the Weddell Sea (Antarctica), Ctenocidaris speciosa were studied. Cidaroid spines have an exterior skeleton layer with a polycrystalline constitution that apparently protects the interior part of the monocrystaline skeleton, the stereom (tridimensional magnesium calcite lattice). The cortex of C. speciosa was by its turn divided into two layers. From these, it presented a thicker inner cortex layer and a lower Mg content in specimens collected below the aragonite saturation horizon. The naked cortex seems able to resist to low calcium carbonate saturation state. We suggest that this could be linked to the important organic matrix that surrounds the crystallites of the cortex.

Some echinoid species present adaptive features that enable them to deal with low pH stresses. This seems to be related to the environmental conditions to which populations are submitted to. Therefore, organisms already submitted to pH daily or seasonal fluctuations or living in environments undersaturated in calcium carbonate seem to be able to cope with environmental conditions expected in an acidified ocean. Under the realistic scenario of a decrease of ca. 0.4 units of pH by 2100, sea urchins, and echinoderms in general, appear to be robust for most studied processes. Even thought, this general response can depend on different parameters such as exposure time, pH level tested, the process and the life stage considered, our results show that there is scope for echinoids to cope with ocean acidification.

dos Ramos Catarino A. I., 2011. Temperate and cold water sea urchin species in an acidifying world: coping with change?. Ph.D. thesis, Université Libre de Bruxelles. PhD thesis (restricted access).


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