The relationship between the apparently inexorable increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) as a direct result of human activity and the increasing acidity in the world’s oceans has been well documented. The current projected estimate is that at the current rate of atmospheric CO2 buildup, the pH in the oceans will drop from the current and historic range of 8.15 – 8.25 to ~ 7.8 or below by the end of the 21st century.
In addition to the disastrous impact of acidification upon the calcification that impedes coral and shell formation in the affected organisms, there is an additional side effect of this acidification that is worthy of attention. Many of the waterborne biologically-significant chemical signals, such as pheromones, that play essential roles in marine biology are disrupted by changes in the pH of the local marine environment. These signaling processes play a crucial role in important biological activities associated with mating, foraging, recruitment and alarm mechanisms.
The impact of this chemical disruption resides on two distinct levels. Increased acidity can affect the signaling compounds directly, and, secondly, impact their required interaction with specific receptor proteins designed to bind with the signaling molecule. This specific interaction between a signaling compound and its unique receptor represents the essential first step in producing the desired effect. This kind of interaction is found throughout metazoan biology.
The mechanism of this disruption caused by increased acidity within the marine environment can be attributed to changes in hydrogen bonding, electrostatic potential and hydrophilic and hydrophobic interactions that affect both ligands and their specific receptors. The types of organic compounds that are so affected include pheromones, nucleosides, thiols (sulfur-based compounds) organic acids and others.
The critical behavioral patterns that suffer from continued acidification of the oceans include sexual reproduction, recognition of the presence of predators, fertilization, larval settlement and many others. Unfortunately, the rate of acidification exceeds the ability of evolutionary mechanisms to respond to the kinds of changes described. This kind of impact of the increase of greenhouse gases within the natural environment needs further study, for the implications can prove to be devastating.