The impact of environmental acidification on the microstructure and mechanical integrity of marine invertebrate skeletons

Ocean acidification (OA), from seawater uptake of anthropogenic CO2, has a suite of negative effects on the ability of marine invertebrates to produce and maintain their skeletons. Increased organism pCO2 causes hypercapnia, an energetically costly physiological stress. OA alters seawater carbonate chemistry, limiting the carbonate available to form the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) minerals used to build skeletons. The reduced saturation state of CaCO3 also causes corrosion of CaCO3 structures. Global change is also accelerating coastal acidification driven by land-run off (e.g. acid soil leachates, tannic acid). Building and maintaining marine biomaterials in the face of changing climate will depend on the balance between calcification and dissolution. Overall, in response to environmental acidification, many calcifiers produce less biomineral and so have smaller body size. Studies of skeleton development in echinoderms and molluscs across life stages show the stunting effect of OA. For corals, linear extension may be maintained, but at the expense of less dense biomineral. Conventional metrics used to quantify growth and calcification need to be augmented by characterisation of the changes to biomineral structure and mechanical integrity caused by environmental acidification. Scanning electron microscopy and microcomputed tomography of corals, tube worms and sea urchins exposed to experimental (laboratory) and natural (vents, coastal run off) acidification show a less dense biomineral with greater porosity and a larger void space. For bivalves, CaCO3 crystal deposition is more chaotic in response to both ocean and coastal acidification. Biomechanics tests reveal that these changes result in weaker, more fragile skeletons, compromising their vital protective roles. Vulnerabilities differ among taxa and depend on acidification level. Climate warming has the potential to ameliorate some of the negative effects of acidification but may also make matters worse. The integrative morphology-ecomechanics approach is key to understanding how marine biominerals will perform in the face of changing climate.

Byrne M. & Fitzer S., 2019. The impact of environmental acidification on the microstructure and mechanical integrity of marine invertebrate skeletons. Conservation Physiology 7 (1): coz062. doi: 10.1093/conphys/coz062. Article.

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