Larval stages of members of the Abulacraria superphylum including echinoderms and hemichordates have highly alkaline midguts. To date, the reason for the evolution of such extreme pH conditions in the gut of these organisms remains unknown. Here, we test the hypothesis that, analogous to the acidic stomachs of vertebrates, these alkaline conditions may represent a first defensive barrier to protect from environmental pathogens. pH-optimum curves for five different species of marine bacteria demonstrated a rapid decrease in proliferation rates by 50–60% between pH 8.5 and 9.5. Using the marine bacterium Vibrio diazotrophicus, which elicits a coordinated immune response in the larvae of the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, we studied the physiological responses of the midgut pH regulatory machinery to this pathogen. Gastroscopic microelectrode measurements demonstrate a stimulation of midgut alkalization upon infection with V. diazotrophicus accompanied by an upregulation of acid–base transporter transcripts of the midgut. Pharmacological inhibition of midgut alkalization resulted in an increased mortality rate of larvae during Vibrio infection. Reductions in seawater pH resembling ocean acidification conditions lead to moderate reductions in midgut alkalization. However, these reductions in midgut pH do not affect the immune response or resilience of sea urchin larvae to a Vibrio infection under ocean acidification conditions. Our study addressed the evolutionary benefits of the alkaline midgut of Ambulacraria larval stages. The data indicate that alkaline conditions in the gut may serve as a first defensive barrier against environmental pathogens and that this mechanism can compensate for changes in seawater pH.
Stumpp M., Petersen I., Thoben F., Yan J.-J., Leippe M. & Hu M. Y., 2020. Alkaline guts contribute to immunity during exposure to acidified seawater in the sea urchin larva. Journal of Experimental Biology 223: jeb222844. doi: 10.1242/jeb.222844. Article (subscription required).