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Climate Change Could Alter Chemical Communication Among Ocean Creatures

Telecommunications networks span the globe, allowing people to quickly and effortlessly exchange information. Undersea chemical communication among marine life is just as complex, but not as well understood.

According to a feature article in Chemical & Engineering News, an independent news outlet of the American Chemical Society, climate change could alter the transmission and receipt of chemical signals by ocean creatures, potentially affecting the delicate balance of undersea ecosystems or causing entire species to disappear.

Improved analytical techniques are helping pin down the thousands of molecules that ocean organisms use to communicate, according to freelance writer Carolyn Wilke. These chemical signals help creatures find food or mates, care for their eggs or avoid predators. With increasing carbon dioxide levels, and the resulting ocean acidification, some marine organisms could become less sensitive to these cues, or the molecules themselves could become altered chemically or conformationally. To help protect ocean ecosystems, scientists are trying to understand the myriad molecules and mechanisms that underlie marine communication networks.

Sensitive new techniques have allowed researchers to identify molecules that had previously gone unrecognized because they're so dilute in water. Other studies suggest that ocean acidification could change the shapes of peptides that female shore crabs use as cues to care for their eggs, causing the crabs to not ventilate their eggs as frequently. Although many studies have reported changes in fishes' sense of smell and behavior with increased carbon dioxide levels, recent controversy over some papers' methodology for monitoring behavioral changes has muddied the waters. Nonetheless, researchers continue to study the effects of climate change on chemical communication throughout multiple levels of the ocean food chain, hoping to inform policy makers about conservation efforts to protect ecosystems. 

A version of this story first appeared in ACS Central Science.

The article, "Climate Change Could Alter Undersea Chemical Communication", is freely available here


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