CO2 vents. Credit: Plymouth University Enlarge

A study into marine life around an underwater volcanic vent in the Mediterranean, might hold the key to understanding how some species will be able to survive in increasingly acidic sea water should anthropogenic climate change continue.

Researchers have discovered that some species of polychaete worms are able to modify their metabolic rates to better cope with and thrive in waters high in carbon dioxide (CO2), which is otherwise poisonous to other, often closely-related species.

The study sheds new light on the robustness of some  and the relative resilience of marine biodiversity should atmospheric CO2 continue to cause ocean acidification.

A team of scientists led by Plymouth University, and including colleagues from the Naples Zoological Station in Ischia; the Marine Ecology Laboratory ENEA in La Spezia, Italy; the University of Texas Galveston; and the University of Hull, conducted a three-year research project into the potential mechanisms that species of worm polychaetes use to live around the underwater CO2 vent of Ischia in Southern Italy.

The researchers collected specimens found in waters characterised by either elevated or low levels of CO2, and placed them in specially-constructed 'transplantation chambers', which were then lowered into areas both within and away from the .

They monitored the responses of the worms and found that one of the species that had been living inside the CO2 vent was physiologically and genetically adapted to the , whilst another was able to survive inside the vent by adjusting its metabolism.

Project leader Dr Piero Calosi, of Plymouth University's Marine Institute, said: "Previous studies have shown that single-cell algae can genetically adapt to elevated levels of carbon dioxide, but this research has demonstrated that a  can physiologically and genetically adapt to chronic and elevated levels of carbon dioxide.

"Furthermore, we show that both plasticity and adaptation are key to preventing some species' from suffering extinction in the face of on-going ocean acidification, and that these two strategies may be largely responsible to defining the fate of ."

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