Coral resilience to ocean acidification and global warming through pH up-regulation

Rapidly rising levels of atmospheric CO2 are not only causing ocean warming, but also lowering seawater pH hence the carbonate saturation state of the oceans, on which many marine organisms depend to calcify their skeletons. Using boron isotope systematics, we show how scleractinian corals up-regulate pH at their site of calcification such that internal changes are approximately one-half of those in ambient seawater. This species-dependent pH-buffering capacity enables aragonitic corals to raise the saturation state of their calcifying medium, thereby increasing calcification rates at little additional energy cost. Using a model of pH regulation combined with abiotic calcification, we show that the enhanced kinetics of calcification owing to higher temperatures has the potential to counter the effects of ocean acidification. Up-regulation of pH, however, is not ubiquitous among calcifying organisms; those lacking this ability are likely to undergo severe declines in calcification as CO2 levels increase. The capacity to up-regulate pH is thus central to the resilience of calcifiers to ocean acidification, although the fate of zooxanthellate corals ultimately depends on the ability of both the photosymbionts and coral host to adapt to rapidly increasing ocean temperatures.

McCulloch M., Falter J., Trotter J. & Montagna, P., in press. Coral resilience to ocean acidification and global warming through pH up-regulation. Nature Climate Change. doi: 10.1038/nclimate1473. Article (subscription required).

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