Ocean acidification buffers the physiological responses of the king ragworm Alitta virens to the common pollutant copper


• Whilst ocean acidification (OA) often increases the toxicity of copper to marine invertebrates, here we find the opposite in the ragworm Alitta virens.

• There was no increase in copper-induced DNA damage or lipid peroxidation under OA conditions.

• Instead OA appeared to buffer the effects of copper on lipid peroxidation and acid-base disturbance, reducing these effects relative to ambient seawater conditions.


Ocean acidification (OA) has the potential to alter the bioavailability of pH sensitive metals contaminating coastal sediments, particularly copper, by changing their speciation in seawater. Hence OA may drive increased toxicity of these metals to coastal biota. Here, we demonstrate complex interactions between OA and copper on the physiology and toxicity responses of the sediment dwelling polychaete Alitta virens. Worm coelomic fluid pCO2 was not increased by exposure to OA conditions (pHNBS 7.77, pCO2 530 μatm) for 14 days, suggesting either physiological or behavioural responses to control coelomic fluid pCO2. Exposure to 0.25 µM nominal copper caused a decrease in coelomic fluid pCO2 by 43.3% and bicarbonate ions by 44.6% but paradoxically this copper-induced effect was reduced under near-future OA conditions. Hence OA appeared to ‘buffer’ the copper-induced acid-base disturbance. DNA damage was significantly increased in worms exposed to copper under ambient pCO2 conditions, rising by 11.1% compared to the worms in the no copper control, but there was no effect of OA conditions on the level of DNA damage induced by copper when exposed in combination. These interactions differ from the increased copper toxicity under OA conditions reported for several other invertebrate species. Hence this new evidence adds to the developing paradigm that species’ physiology is key in determining the interactions of these two stressors rather than it purely being driven by the changes in metal chemistry under lower seawater pH.

Nielson C., Hird C. & Lewis C., in press. Ocean acidification buffers the physiological responses of the king ragworm Alitta virens to the common pollutant copper. Aquatic Toxicology. Article (subscription required).

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