Biochemical adaptation to ocean acidification

The change in oceanic carbonate chemistry due to increased atmospheric PCO2 has caused pH to decline in marine surface waters, a phenomenon known as ocean acidification (OA). The effects of OA on organisms have been shown to be widespread among diverse taxa from a wide range of habitats. The majority of studies of organismal response to OA are in short-term exposures to future levels of PCO2. From such studies, much information has been gathered on plastic responses organisms may make in the future that are beneficial or harmful to fitness. Relatively few studies have examined whether organisms can adapt to negative-fitness consequences of plastic responses to OA. We outline major approaches that have been used to study the adaptive potential for organisms to OA, which include comparative studies and experimental evolution. Organisms that inhabit a range of pH environments (e.g. pH gradients at volcanic CO2 seeps or in upwelling zones) have great potential for studies that identify adaptive shifts that have occurred through evolution. Comparative studies have advanced our understanding of adaptation to OA by linking whole-organism responses with cellular mechanisms. Such optimization of function provides a link between genetic variation and adaptive evolution in tuning optimal function of rate-limiting cellular processes in different pH conditions. For example, in experimental evolution studies of organisms with short generation times (e.g. phytoplankton), hundreds of generations of growth under future conditions has resulted in fixed differences in gene expression related to acid–base regulation. However, biochemical mechanisms for adaptive responses to OA have yet to be fully characterized, and are likely to be more complex than simply changes in gene expression or protein modification. Finally, we present a hypothesis regarding an unexplored area for biochemical adaptation to ocean acidification. In this hypothesis, proteins and membranes exposed to the external environment, such as epithelial tissues, may be susceptible to changes in external pH. Such biochemical systems could be adapted to a reduced pH environment by adjustment of weak bonds in an analogous fashion to biochemical adaptation to temperature. Whether such biochemical adaptation to OA exists remains to be discovered.

Stillman J. H. & Paganini A. W., 2015. Biochemical adaptation to ocean acidification. The Journal of Experimental Biology  218:1946-1955. Article.

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