Environmental Pollution Accentuates Problems of Hypoxic Fish: Why?

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Maanantai 20.9.2021 klo 14:55 - Mikko Nikinmaa


Hypoxia, i.e., low oxygen concentration, has increased in aquatic environments throughout the world. Hypoxia is mainly caused by eutrophication of waters whereby the oxygen consumption of organisms (but also oxidation of dead materials) increases. The occurrence of hypoxia is either continuous or diurnal. Diurnal changes in oxygen levels occur, if the eutrophication is mainly resulting from the increased biomass of photosynthetising organisms: during the day, when light is available, the increased photosynthesis can cause the environment to become hyperoxic, while at night even those organisms only respire, whereby the oxygen level drops. Continuous hypoxia occurs, when the oxygen demand always exceeds its diffusion (especially from the air) and production.

Fish take up the oxygen they need via the gills. The gills are also the major site of acid-base and ion regulation. This dual function has generated the “osmorespiratory compromise”:   high functional surface area and low diffusion distance favour oxygen uptake, whereas low functional surface area and high diffusion distance favour ion regulation. Aspects of this have been reviewed by Wood and Eom in Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology A-Molecular & Integrative Physiology 2021 Vol. 254 (DOI: 10.1016/j.cbpa.2021.110895). From the environmental pollution point of view, it is important to note that many if not most pollutants have important effects on gills.

Because of the effects of pollutants on gills, it can be expected that the hypoxia responses of fish are affected by pollutants. This is all the more worrisome, as the same sources are the cause of both eutrophicating nutrients and many toxic wastes, i.e., water that has gone through wastewater treatment plants. Lau et al. have studied, how hypoxia responses of fish vary in clean water and in effluent from a modern wastewater treatment plant (Lau et al. Environmental Pollution 2021 Vol. 284, DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2021.117373). They observed that the hypoxia tolerance of fish was markedly decreased. This was associated with a reduction in the decrease of the so called intralamellar cell mass. Recently, it has been found that fish increase the functional area of gills in hypoxia largely by decreasing the intralamellar cell mass. If this cannot be done, hypoxia tolerance is impaired. It is not known, why the intralamellar cell mass could not be reduced in the effluent-treated fish. However, the results clearly show that the osmorespiratory compromise of the gills is an important factor to be taken into account when the success of fish in polluted, hypoxic environments is studied.

Avainsanat: aquatic toxicology, water pollution, gill function, hypoxia


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