The real limits to marine life: a further critique of the Respiration Index

The recently proposed “Respiration Index” (RI = log[PO2]/[PCO2]) suggests that aerobic metabolism is limited by the ratio of reactants (R, oxygen) and products (P, carbon dioxide) according to the thermodynamics of cellular respiration. Here we demonstrate that, because of the large standard free energy change for organic carbon oxidation (ΔG° = −686 kcal mol−1), carbon dioxide can never reach concentrations that would limit the thermodynamics of this reaction. A PCO2 to PO2 ratio of 10503 would be required to reach equilibrium (equilibrium constant, Keq = 10503), where ΔG = 0. Thus a respiration index of −503 would be the real thermodynamic limit to aerobic life. Such a Respiration Index is never reached either in the cell or in the environment. Moreover cellular respiration and oxygen provision are kinetically controlled such that, within limits, environmental oxygen and CO2 concentrations have little to do with intracellular concentrations. The RI is fundamentally different from the aragonite saturation state, a thermodynamic index used to quantify the potential effect of CO2 on calcification rates, because of its failure to incorporate the equilibrium constant of the reaction. Not only is the RI invalid, its use leads to incorrect and dangerous predictions of the threat of changing oxygen and carbon dioxide to marine life. We provide a physiological model that identifies oxygen thresholds, and allows for synergistic effects of ocean acidification and global warming.

Seibel B. A. & Childress J. J., 2012. The real limits to marine life: a further critique of the Respiration Index. Biogeosciences Discussions 9: 16521-16532. Article.

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