Unique genomic and phenotypic responses to extreme and variable pH conditions in purple urchin larvae

Environmental variation experienced by a species across space and time can promote the maintenance of genetic diversity that may be adaptive in future global change conditions. Selection experiments have shown that purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, populations have adaptive genetic variation for surviving pH conditions at the “edge” (pH 7.5) of conditions experienced in nature. However, little is known about whether populations have genetic variation for surviving low-pH events beyond those currently experienced in nature or how variation in pH conditions affects organismal and genetic responses. Here, we quantified survival, growth, and allele frequency shifts in experimentally selected developing purple sea urchin larvae in static and variable conditions at three pH levels: pH 8.1 (control), pH 7.5 (edge-of-range), and pH 7.0 (extreme). Variable treatments recovered body size relative to static treatments, but resulted in higher mortality, suggesting a potential tradeoff between survival and growth under pH stress. However, within each pH level, allele frequency changes were overlapping between static and variable conditions, suggesting a shared genetic basis underlying survival to mean pH regardless of variability. In contrast, genetic responses to pH 7.5 (edge) versus pH 7.0 (extreme) conditions were distinct, indicating a unique genetic basis of survival. In addition, loci under selection were more likely to be in exonic regions than regulatory, indicating that selection targeted protein-coding variation. Loci under selection in variable pH 7.5 conditions, more similar to conditions periodically experienced in nature, performed functions related to lipid biosynthesis and metabolism, while loci under selection in static pH 7.0 conditions performed functions related to transmembrane and mitochondrial processes. While these results are promising in that purple sea urchin populations possess genetic variation for surviving extreme pH conditions not currently experienced in nature, they caution that increased acidification does not result in a linear response but elicits unique physiological stresses and survival mechanisms.

Garrett A. D., Brennan R. S., Steinhart A. L., Pelletier A. M. & Pespeni M. H., 2020. Unique genomic and phenotypic responses to extreme and variable pH conditions in purple urchin larvae. Integrative and Comparative Biology icaa072. doi:10.1093/icb/icaa072. Article (subscription required).

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