Imagine that! Although your mind might jump to some cool new X-men worthy human, that’s unfortunately not what I’m talking about. Instead, imagine that because of global warming, our skins began to dissolve. Our barrier, that serves to protect those vital organs from all that external bacteria just disappeared! Now in all honesty, no such thing has happened to humans…yet. As for mussels, well they haven’t been so lucky.
As I’m sure many of you know, ocean acidification refers to the ongoing increase in oceanic pH caused by an increased uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The worst part is that this increase in atmospheric CO2 largely originates from human activity.
So what does this have to do with mussels? As the CO2 levels in the ocean increase, the carbonate levels decrease. Carbonate is essential to the up-keep of the “skin” of mussels…their shells! Without this carbonate, the shells begin to dissolve. This presents a problem, because the shell is required to protect all of the soft body elements of the mussel, analogous to our skin protecting our organs.
Imagine if there was no O2 left in the environment for us to use to continue to build up our skin cells. We too would have our skin degrade. Worse yet, imagine if the O2 levels were decreasing because of the actions of mussels; if they were driving cars, or using coal and fossil fuels. Doesn’t look so good from the other side right?
The culmination of all this overwhelming information did lead to an interesting question. I wondered whether increasing CO2 levels in our oceans would not only affect the calcium carbonate shells of mussels, but also their muscles. That’s right…in addition to their “skin” being dissolved, would their adductor muscles also lose strength?
As it turns out the answer is yes. More bad news…sorry guys. When I looked at the weight required to split the mussel shells, the mussels that were exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide split easier. This meant that their adductor muscles were less strong which could have terrible consequences. To keep their shells closed, for example when a sea star is attempting to pry them apart, mussels use adductor muscles.
That’s right, no protection and no defence. In humans, that would be like no skin and no muscles to fight back. This could obviously be a huge a problem as mussels are really important! Of course, humans use mussels as a food source. More importantly mussels are also ecosystem engineers. They modify aquatic habitat to make it more suitable for themselves and other organisms.
So not to continue to add to the barrel of bad news but if you guys want some more information on the effect of ocean acidification on the byssal threads of mussels click here. If you can handle even more bad news and want to read on its effect on mussel larvae click here.
Remember, keep science-ing on!