Effect of elevated pCO2 and environmental oxazepam on the behavior and physiology of teleost fish

This doctoral thesis investigated the effect of two aquatic pollutants on the behavior and physiology of teleost fish: i) elevated concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the context of ocean acidification and ii) low concentrations of the anxiolytic pharmaceutical oxazepam in the context of pharmaceutical pollution.

Anthropogenic emissions of CO2 are lowering the pH of the oceans. Studies on coral reef fish exposed to CO2 concentrations projected for the year 2100 (~1000 μatm) reported alarming behavioral effects, of which attraction to predator odor was the most surprising. To explain this behavioral reversal, it was hypothesized that ion-regulatory adjustments to compensate for the decrease in blood pH would result in altered transmembrane gradients of chloride ions, rendering the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA), excitatory. We investigated whether zebrafish (Danio rerio), an often used model species, showed similar behavioral disruptions in elevated CO2. Zebrafish behavior was however largely unaffected by an approximately month long exposure to ~1600 μatm CO2. We continued by investigating the reproductive, anxiety-related behavior and aggression in another model species, the three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus). However, also stickleback behavior and responses to social subordination were not affected by CO2, in contrast to earlier findings. We concluded that CO2 had no major effect on the behavior of zebrafish and three-spined stickleback.

In the second part of this thesis, I investigated behavioral effects of oxazepam, an anxiolytic pharmaceutical (benzodiazepine) acting on the GABA system. Studies on perch (Perca fluviatilis) have shown that exposure to dilute concentrations of oxazepam (1.8 μg L-1), close to those found outside the municipal sewage treatment plant in Uppsala (0.58 μg L-1), can increase activity, decrease sociality and increase feeding rates. I show that similar oxazepam concentrations can also affect zebrafish. Moreover, I show that females are more sensitive to oxazepam showing reduced anti-predator responses at 0.57 μg L-1 while in males this effect was observed first at 60 μg L-1. Furthermore, and in contrast to wild-caught zebrafish, laboratory zebrafish did not show any effect of the oxazepam exposure. This finding has implications for the use of laboratory zebrafish in ecotoxicological and pharmacological studies, as results might not translate to wild fish. Finally, I show that zebrafish can develop tolerance to the anxiolytic effects of oxazepam during chronic (28 days) exposure. This is an important discovery that could mitigate the effects of this form of pharmaceutical pollution on wild fish.

Vossen, L. E., 2019. Effect of elevated pCO2 and environmental oxazepam on the behavior and physiology of teleost fish. PhD thesis, Uppsala University, 64 pp. Thesis.

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