ABSTRACT

The regulation of vertebrate acid–base balance during acute episodes of elevated internal PCO2 is typically characterized by extracellular pH (pHe) regulation. Changes in pHe are associated with qualitatively similar changes in intracellular tissue pH (pHi) as the two are typically coupled, referred to as ‘coupled pH regulation’. However, not all vertebrates rely on coupled pH regulation; instead, some preferentially regulate pHi against severe and maintained reductions in pHe. Preferential pHi regulation has been identified in several adult fish species and an aquatic amphibian, but never in adult amniotes. Recently, common snapping turtles were observed to preferentially regulate pHi during development; the pattern of acid–base regulation in these species shifts from preferential pHi regulation in embryos to coupled pH regulation in adults. In this Commentary, we discuss the hypothesis that preferential pHi regulation may be a general strategy employed by vertebrate embryos in order to maintain acid–base homeostasis during severe acute acid–base disturbances. In adult vertebrates, the retention or loss of preferential pHi regulation may depend on selection pressures associated with the environment inhabited and/or the severity of acid–base regulatory challenges to which they are exposed. We also consider the idea that the retention of preferential pHi regulation into adulthood may have been a key event in vertebrate evolution, with implications for the invasion of freshwater habitats, the evolution of air breathing and the transition of vertebrates from water to land.

Introduction

Acid–base regulation is an essential physiological process that demands tight control. It is well known that absolute physiological pH values differ between species and between body compartments within species, and are affected by temperature (Rahn, 1974); however, within a given system, pH values are regulated within a relatively narrow range (Cameron, 1989; Heisler, 1984). Deviations from normal physiological pH values can affect molecular charge, altering the structure and function of proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and nucleic acids, and, ultimately, reducing whole-animal performance (Occhipinti and Boron, 2015; Putnam and Roos, 1997). The degree to which a pH change affects function depends on the system in question.

Acid–base disturbances may arise from respiratory or metabolic sources (see Glossary). Respiratory acidoses occur as a result of an increase in blood CO2, either from the environment (hypercarbia; see Glossary) or by retention of metabolically produced CO2 (hypercapnia; see Glossary); typical arterial values of partial pressure of CO (PCO2) for adult water-breathing and bimodally breathing fishes, and reptiles and mammals are 0.1–0.5 (Ultsch, 1996), 0.5–3.5 (Shartau and Brauner, 2014), 1.8–4.3 (Ultsch, 1996) and 4.5–5.6 kPa PCO2 (Arieff et al., 1976; Malan et al., 1985; Wood and Schaefer, 1978; Yaksh and Anderson, 1987), respectively. Any increase in PCO2 beyond those values shifts the equilibrium of the CO2 hydration reaction (CO2+H2O↔H++HCO3), promoting the formation of H+ and HCO3 and lowering pH, resulting in acidosis. Metabolic acidoses occur because of the production of metabolically generated acid, for example, following exercise or hypoxia, as a result of anaerobic metabolism, which lowers HCO3 at a relatively constant PCO2 (Occhipinti and Boron, 2015).

Typically, organismal acid–base regulation in vertebrates is characterized by regulation of blood extracellular pH (pHe). During an acute respiratory acidosis, reductions in pHe are associated with qualitatively similar reductions in intracellular tissue pH (pHi). Following the onset of a respiratory acidosis, the recovery of pHi is often more rapid than that of pHe, but complete correction of pHi generally requires pHe compensation (see Glossary) of >50% (Baker et al., 2015; Larsen et al., 1997; Wood and LeMoigne, 1991; Wood et al., 1990; Wood and Schaefer, 1978), which we refer to here as ‘coupled pH regulation’ (Fig. 1A,C). Coupled regulation is thought to represent the normal response to an acute persistent acidosis both in vivo and in vitro. Some vertebrates, however, do not exhibit coupled pH regulation during a severe acute acidosis, but instead preferentially and rapidly regulate pHi, despite maintained reductions in pHe that can exceed 1 pH unit (Fig. 1B,D) (Baker et al., 2009; Brauner and Baker, 2009; Shartau and Brauner, 2014). Although all cells have the capacity for some degree of pHi regulation (Occhipinti and Boron, 2015; Putnam and Roos, 1997; Vaughan-Jones et al., 2009), in animals that employ coupled pH regulation, cells cannot fully compensate for changes in pHi during a large sustained reduction in pHe.

Fig. 1.

Representation of the typical response of vertebrates during acute sustained hypercapnia utilizing either coupled pH regulation or preferential intracellular pH (pHi) regulation. (A,C) In species utilizing coupled pH regulation, a hypercarbia-induced respiratory acidosis (initiated at t=0) leads to a rapid reduction in both extracellular pH (pHe) and pHi, with maximal pH depression occurring typically by 3 h or less. Recovery of pH then occurs by 24 h, but the rate of recovery depends on the severity of the pH depression and the ability for net acid excretion to the environment. pHi often recovers more rapidly than pHe, but complete pHi compensation generally requires >50% of complete pHe recovery. (B,D) In species utilizing preferential pHi regulation, a hypercarbia-induced respiratory acidosis leads to a rapid reduction in pHe but no change (or even a slight increase) in pHi. During hypercarbia, pHi remains independent of the sustained, uncompensated reduction of pHe for periods >24 h.

Fig. 1.

Representation of the typical response of vertebrates during acute sustained hypercapnia utilizing either coupled pH regulation or preferential intracellular pH (pHi) regulation. (A,C) In species utilizing coupled pH regulation, a hypercarbia-induced respiratory acidosis (initiated at t=0) leads to a rapid reduction in both extracellular pH (pHe) and pHi, with maximal pH depression occurring typically by 3 h or less. Recovery of pH then occurs by 24 h, but the rate of recovery depends on the severity of the pH depression and the ability for net acid excretion to the environment. pHi often recovers more rapidly than pHe, but complete pHi compensation generally requires >50% of complete pHe recovery. (B,D) In species utilizing preferential pHi regulation, a hypercarbia-induced respiratory acidosis leads to a rapid reduction in pHe but no change (or even a slight increase) in pHi. During hypercarbia, pHi remains independent of the sustained, uncompensated reduction of pHe for periods >24 h.

Although vertebrates are the focus of this Commentary, it is worth noting that limited studies on invertebrates during acute severe hypercarbia suggest that invertebrate acid–base regulation may be characterized by coupled pH regulation, similar to vertebrates. In the few studies where both pHe and pHi have been measured during acute severe hypercarbia, reductions in pHe and pHi in a land snail (Otala lactea) (Barnhart and McMahon, 1988), deep sea bivalve (Acesta excavata) (Hammer et al., 2011), cuttlefish (Sepia officinalis) (Gutowska et al., 2010) and peanut worm (Sipunculus nudus) (Pörtner et al., 1998) have been observed. Unlike vertebrates, there is no evidence of preferential pHi regulation in invertebrates to date; however, given the dearth of data, it is premature to ascribe a single strategy of acid–base regulation to this large and diverse group of animals.

List of symbols and abbreviations
     
  • pHe

    extracellular pH

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  • pHi

    intracellular tissue pH

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  • PCO2

    partial pressure of CO2

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  • PO2

    partial pressure of O2

  •  
  • RBC

    red blood cell

Preferential pHi regulation is a phenomenon that has been identified in only a few vertebrate species to date, and it represents a notably different pattern of acid–base regulation, involving complete correction of pHi in the absence of pHe recovery. Based on our recent findings (Shartau et al., 2016), we hypothesize that preferential pHi regulation may represent the basal and embryonic pattern of acid–base regulation in vertebrates, providing extreme tolerance to severe acid–base challenges. It is possible that this exceptional pattern of acid–base regulation represents an exaptation (see Glossary) associated with both the evolution of air breathing and the transition of life from water to land – events that are likely to have posed challenges to acid–base homeostasis.

This Commentary will introduce readers to preferential pHi regulation as a pattern of acid–base regulation used during acute acid–base challenges, and discuss how it differs from the more commonly accepted vertebrate pattern of coupled pH regulation. We will discuss the differences between these two means of controlling acid–base balance. Next, we will show that preferential pHi regulation is more prevalent than previously thought by discussing the increasing number of species that display this trait, considering both embryonic and adult stages. Following that, we will discuss our hypothesis that preferential pHi regulation is prevalent in embryonic vertebrates but is lost during the course of development in most species. Finally, ideas concerning the selective pressure for preferential pHi regulation and its potential role in vertebrate evolution will be examined.

Glossary

Exaptation

An adaptation that has been co-opted for another, unrelated use.

Hypercapnia

Elevated internal CO2.

Hypercarbia

Elevated environmental CO2.

Hypochloremia

Reduced level of chloride ions in the blood.

Metabolic acidosis

Reduced pH because of a reduction in HCO3 at a constant PCO2.

pH compensation

A return of pH to its normal value following an acid–base disturbance.

Respiratory acidosis

Reduced pH because of increased blood CO2 from an environmental or internal source.

Coupled pH regulation

Findings from in vivo studies conducted on a relatively small selection of juvenile and adult mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes have established that vertebrates utilize coupled pH regulation during compensation for respiratory acid–base disturbances (Brauner and Baker, 2009; Cameron, 1989; Occhipinti and Boron, 2015; Shartau and Brauner, 2014). Likewise, in vitro cell culture studies have demonstrated that most vertebrate cells are unable to completely compensate for an acute respiratory acidosis while pHe remains reduced, indicating that complete pHi recovery is contingent on significant recovery of pHe. Coupled pH regulation has formed the dogma of vertebrate acid–base homeostasis for decades (Albers, 1970; Cameron, 1989; Heisler, 1984; Occhipinti and Boron, 2015; Roos and Boron, 1981). Visual representation of coupled pH regulation (Fig. 1A,C) illustrates that as pHe is reduced, pHi falls in a qualitatively similar manner. Although the recovery of pHi generally occurs more rapidly than that of pHe, complete pHi compensation has typically been associated with pHe recovery of ∼50% or greater (Baker et al., 2015; Larsen et al., 1997; Wood and LeMoigne, 1991; Wood et al., 1990; Wood and Schaefer, 1978). This limit to pHi correction is in clear contrast to the recovery seen in vertebrates exhibiting preferential pHi regulation. These species can tolerate severe reductions in pHe with no change in pHi – in some cases pHi actually increases (Fig. 1B,D). The pattern of coupled pH regulation has been thoroughly described in a number of reviews (see Brauner and Baker, 2009; Cameron, 1989; Heisler, 1984; Occhipinti and Boron, 2015), so will only briefly be discussed here.

In vivo studies

Marine and freshwater fishes experiencing a respiratory acidosis that is due to acute hypercarbia exposure exhibit coupled pH regulation, which has been observed in agnathans (Baker et al., 2015), elasmobranchs (Heisler et al., 1988; Wood et al., 1990) and many teleosts (e.g. Brauner and Baker, 2009; Hayashi et al., 2004; Larsen et al., 1997; Wood and LeMoigne, 1991). Coupled pH regulation is driven primarily by acid extrusion and base uptake at the gills; although the kidneys are the primary site of acid–base regulation in air breathers, they probably play only a minor role in acid–base exchange in water breathers but are important for base retention (Brauner and Baker, 2009; Cameron, 1989). In fishes that exhibit coupled pH regulation, compensation of pHe and pHi occurs over the initial 24–72 h during sustained hypercarbia exposure (Fig. 1A,C), with pHi recovery usually preceding that of pHe, partly because intracellular fluids typically display a lower pH than the extracellular blood environment, which places the pK’ (the apparent dissociation constant) of the CO2–HCO3 reaction closer to pHi. Thus, relatively less HCO3 is required to compensate pHi compared with pHe. This recovery is further aided by the greater buffering capacity of intracellular fluids, which moderates the initial pH disturbance (Brauner et al., 2004; Ultsch, 1996).

Coupled pH regulation during acute hypercarbia is accomplished by a net increase in plasma HCO3 associated with an equimolar loss of Cl. The extent of this HCO3 elevation, however, appears to be limited, in that plasma [HCO3] rarely exceeds 27–33 mmol l−1 during exposure to acute hypercapnia – this has been previously referred to as the ‘apparent bicarbonate concentration threshold’ (Heisler, 1984). This threshold is associated with a ceiling of complete pHe compensation in most fish during acute exposure to CO2 tensions below 2–2.5 kPa PCO2 (Baker et al., 2009; Brauner and Baker, 2009). Although the basis of this threshold is unknown, recent work has supported the hypothesis that pHe compensation during acute hypercarbia may be limited by the relative decrease in plasma Cl levels to avoid hypochloremia (see Glossary; Baker et al., 2015). The osmo- and iono-conforming Pacific hagfish (Eptatretus stoutii), a coupled pH regulator, has a plasma [Cl] of ∼458 mmol l−1, which is three to four times higher than that of typical teleosts, and perhaps as a result, hagfish are able to increase plasma [HCO3] to >80 mmol l−1, driving pHe and pHi recovery during exposure to severe hypercarbia (PCO2 of ∼6.5 kPa) (Baker et al., 2015). In contrast to acute hypercarbia, chronic CO2 exposure allows some teleosts to elevate [HCO3] well beyond this threshold, aiding pHe recovery. Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) subjected to increasing hypercarbia over 3 days to reach 3.47 kPa PCO2, and maintained at this level for an additional 3 days, had a blood [HCO3] of 66 mmol l−1 (Dimberg, 1988). Similarly, European eels (Anguilla anguilla) gradually exposed to and maintained at 6 kPa PCO2 for 6 weeks had plasma [HCO3] of 73 mmol l−1 (McKenzie et al., 2003). The degree and speed of pHe compensation in aquatic coupled pH regulators during acute and chronic hypercarbia exposure is affected by the physicochemical characteristics of the surrounding water, such as the levels of acid–base relevant counter-ions (Larsen and Jensen, 1997).

In adult air-breathing tetrapods, coupled pH regulation is observed in all taxa where pHe and pHi have been measured during an acute respiratory acidosis; furthermore, there is no evidence to date for preferential pHi regulation in these adult animals. Exposure of the cane toad (Bufo marinus) (Snyder and Nestler, 1991; Toews and Heisler, 1982), knight anole (Anolis equestris) and desert iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis) (Snyder et al., 1995) to 5 kPa PCO2 for 1 h resulted in a respiratory acidosis with severe reductions in pHe and pHi; reductions in pHe and pHi were observed in western painted turtles (Chrysemys picta bellii) for up to 6 h during a severe acute respiratory acidosis associated with diving (Wasser et al., 1991) (see Table 1 for further detail). Coupled pH regulation also occurs during an acute metabolic acidosis following exhaustive exercise in the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) (Baldwin et al., 1995), strongly supporting speculation that coupled pH regulation is a general pattern for all pH disturbances in adult air-breathing vertebrates. Further support for this conclusion is the substantial evidence that mammals subjected to an acute respiratory acidosis display coupled pH regulation. Adult dog (Arieff et al., 1976) and cat (Yaksh and Anderson, 1987) pHe and pHi were reduced following exposure to ≥8 kPa PCO2 for 3 h and 10 min, respectively. In guinea pigs exposed to 15 kPa PCO2, there was an uncompensated reduction in pHe and pHi of lung, kidney, heart and muscle between 2 and 8 h of exposure, but at 7 days, pHe and pHi exhibited compensation of 68% and 80–106%, respectively; a response indicative of coupled pH regulation (Wood and Schaefer, 1978). This pattern has also been corroborated in rats (Gonzalez and Clancy, 1986; Litt et al., 1985) and hamsters (Malan et al., 1985) during acute hypercarbia exposure (Table 1). Thus, in all adult amniotes investigated to date in vivo (dog, cat, rat, hamster, guinea pig, western painted turtle, knight anole and desert iguana), an acute respiratory acidosis results in reduced pHe and pHi, and recovery occurs through coupled pH regulation, as has been observed for a relatively small number of fish species that have been examined to date.

Table 1.

Examples of the changes in blood and tissue pH (pHe and pHi, respectively) following a severe acute hypercapnia-induced respiratory acidosis in selected vertebrates

Examples of the changes in blood and tissue pH (pHe and pHi, respectively) following a severe acute hypercapnia-induced respiratory acidosis in selected vertebrates
Examples of the changes in blood and tissue pH (pHe and pHi, respectively) following a severe acute hypercapnia-induced respiratory acidosis in selected vertebrates

In vitro studies

There are many cell culture studies that have examined pHi regulation in cells following transitory reductions in pHe (e.g. Bouyer et al., 2004; Filosa et al., 2002; Furimsky et al., 1999; Goldstein et al., 2000; Huynh et al., 2011b; Liu et al., 1990; Nottingham et al., 2001; Ritucci, 2005; Salameh et al., 2014). Only a few of these have been conducted in the presence of sustained and elevated CO2; however, other studies using metabolic acid–base challenges are informative about the relationship between pHi and pHe. The general pattern shown in these studies is that (1) reducing pHe causes pHi to be reduced and (2) complete recovery of pHi does not occur until the starting pHe is re-established (Occhipinti and Boron, 2015; Putnam and Roos, 1997; Vaughan-Jones et al., 2009). For example, when a metabolic acidosis was induced in a variety of mouse cell types (hippocampal neurons, astrocytes, medullary raphe neurons, colon cancer cells, skeletal muscle cells, macrophages, dendritic cells, melanocytes and keratinocytes) by lowering the external fluid [HCO3] to reduce pHe, the pHi of all cell types was reduced and only fully recovered following the return of pHe to control values (Salameh et al., 2014). Generally, in vitro studies indicate that acute changes in external or environmental pH will rapidly affect pHi. Although pHi recovers in all cells once the source of the external acidosis is removed, most vertebrate cells are unable to avoid acute pHi reduction when pHe is reduced in a cell culture environment, characteristic of coupled pH regulation. Of course, pHi responses recorded in vitro may not necessarily be representative of patterns of whole-animal acid–base regulation; however, in white sturgeon exposed to hypercarbia, the pHi protective response observed in liver tissue in vivo (Baker et al., 2009) was also observed to some degree in isolated hepatocytes exposed to hypercarbia that reduced pHe to a similar magnitude (Huynh et al., 2011a).

Preferential pHi regulation in adult vertebrates

Adult fishes make up the majority of species where preferential pHi regulation has been identified thus far. The white sturgeon (an acipenseriform) is presently the most basal actinopterygian in which preferential pHi regulation has been observed (Fig. 2). Exposure of white sturgeon for 48 h to 6 kPa PCO2 reduced pHe by ∼0.6 pH units, but no reductions in pHi were observed in heart, liver, brain or white muscle (Baker et al., 2009); following 6 h of exposure to 12 kPa PCO2, pHe fell by ∼1.0 pH unit, but liver pHi increased by 0.2 pH units (Baker and Brauner, 2012). Protection of pHi during exposure to hypercarbia in white sturgeon appears to be nearly instantaneous. When heart pHi was measured in real time at 2-min intervals using magnetic resonance imaging, there was no evidence for heart muscle pHi ever decreasing (D. W. Baker, Physiological responses associated with aquatic hypercarbia in the CO2-tolerant white sturgeon Acipenser transmontanus, PhD thesis, University of British Columbia, 2010).

Fig. 2.

Prevalence of preferential pHi regulation amongst vertebrates exposed to an acute (<48 h) respiratory acidosis of ≥1 kPa blood PCO2. Groups containing species in which either coupled (C) or preferential (P) pHi regulation has been observed in adults are indicated by ✓; embryos are indicated by ✓e. Table 2 contains the information on the species in which this has been investigated, along with the relevant references.

Fig. 2.

Prevalence of preferential pHi regulation amongst vertebrates exposed to an acute (<48 h) respiratory acidosis of ≥1 kPa blood PCO2. Groups containing species in which either coupled (C) or preferential (P) pHi regulation has been observed in adults are indicated by ✓; embryos are indicated by ✓e. Table 2 contains the information on the species in which this has been investigated, along with the relevant references.

Table 2.

Pattern of vertebrate pH regulation following exposure to an acute (<48 h) respiratory acidosis of ≥1 kPa blood PCO2

Pattern of vertebrate pH regulation following exposure to an acute (<48 h) respiratory acidosis of ≥1 kPa blood PCO2
Pattern of vertebrate pH regulation following exposure to an acute (<48 h) respiratory acidosis of ≥1 kPa blood PCO2

All other adult species in which preferential pHi regulation has been observed are bimodal breathers. The armoured catfish (Pterygoplichthys pardalis), a tropical freshwater teleost, preferentially regulates pHi of heart, brain, liver and white muscle during acid–base disturbances of different origins, including respiratory acidosis (hypercarbia) (Brauner et al., 2004), metabolic acidosis (exhaustive exercise and anoxia) and intravenous base addition (HCO3 injection) (Harter et al., 2014). Similarly, another tropical freshwater teleost, the marbled swamp eel (Synbranchus marmoratus), is able to preferentially regulate heart and white muscle pHi during exposure to 3.5 kPa PCO2 for 96 h, despite pHe being reduced by ∼0.6 pH units and remaining uncompensated throughout the exposure period (Heisler, 1982). Recently, preferential pHi regulation has been observed in striped catfish (Pangasianodon hypophthalmus; R.B.S., M. Sackville, C. Damsgaard, L. M. Phuong, M. Hvas, T. Wang, M. Bayley, D. T. T. Huong, N. T. Phuong and C.J.B., unpublished observations), spotted gar (Lepisosteus oculatus), longnose gar (L. osseus) and alligator gar (Atractosteus spatula) (Shartau and Brauner, 2014) during severe acute hypercarbia. There is indirect evidence for preferential pHi regulation in bowfin (Amia calva) (Brauner and Baker, 2009) and South American lungfish (Lepidosiren paradoxa) (Brauner and Baker, 2009; Sanchez et al., 2005; Shartau and Brauner, 2014), based upon the presence of severe uncompensated pHe reductions, which are highly characteristic of preferential pHi regulation; however, further studies are required to validate the pattern of acid–base regulation in these species.

To date, only one adult tetrapod is known to preferentially regulate pHi – an aquatic bimodally breathing amphibian, the greater siren (Siren lacertina). Exposing the greater siren to aquatic hypercarbia of 6.3 kPa PCO2 resulted in an uncompensated reduction in pHe, but heart and white muscle pHi were unchanged from values recorded under normocapnic conditions following 32 h of exposure (Heisler et al., 1982), the earliest measure taken in that study. As it stands, the lack of evidence for preferential pHi regulation in adult amniotes strongly suggests that these animals rely on coupled pH regulation (see previous section). Intriguingly, recent studies indicate that acid–base regulation in some embryonic amniotes may differ from that of adults – this is discussed in the next section.

Preferential pHi regulation during development

Characterizing pHi regulation in early development is challenging because of the difficulty of measuring pHi in single cells in vivo; consequently, evidence supporting or refuting preferential pHi regulation at early developmental stages is severely lacking. A number of studies have measured pHi in early-stage embryos, demonstrating that, early in development, cells are capable of pH regulation just after fertilization and are able to compensate for an intracellular acid–base disturbance of almost 1 pH unit (FitzHarris and Baltz, 2009; Lane, 1999). Work on fish has also showed this pattern, as early-stage zebrafish embryos exposed to 3.3 kPa PCO2 for 2 h in vitro display a respiratory acidosis, but are still able to restore pHi to pre-hypercarbic values (Molich and Heisler, 2005). These studies indicate that during an acute acidosis, cells have the capacity to compensate pHi at the earliest developmental time points. It is unknown for how long embryos retain this capacity for pHi regulation, as it may be reduced or enhanced following the appearance of the extracellular space and the growth of organs involved in regulating pHe; additionally, the above findings are from in vitro studies and, as indicated previously, these may or may not be representative of in vivo responses during an acid–base disturbance.

Beyond the earliest developmental stages, acid–base regulation has been poorly studied in embryonic vertebrates; however, several studies to date have examined the response of late-stage chicken (Gallus gallus) embryos to respiratory and metabolic acidoses (Everaert et al., 2011). Exposing chicken embryos in vivo to severe acute respiratory or metabolic acidosis for up to 24 h results in large reductions in pHe that are not fully compensated, but the embryos survive (Burggren et al., 2012; Mueller et al., 2014) – a pattern that is consistent with the pHe changes observed in fish that preferentially regulate pHi (Brauner and Baker, 2009). These studies did not measure pHi; however, based on these data, we hypothesize that embryonic chickens may preferentially regulate pHi, making this a potential avian model that is clearly worthy of study.

The only simultaneous measurements of pHe and pHi that have been made in later-stage developing vertebrate embryos during acute acid–base disturbances were in the common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) (Shartau et al., 2016) and American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) (R.B.S., D.A.C., Z. F. Kohl, R. M. Elsey and C.J.B., unpublished observations), where preferential pHi regulation was observed for the first time in amniotes. Turtles at three developmental stages (two embryonic and one post-hatch stage) were exposed to hypercarbic hypoxia (13 kPa PCO2, 9 kPa PO2) for 1 h to create a severe acute respiratory metabolic acidosis, similar to the above studies on embryonic chickens. It was observed that the pattern of acid–base regulation changes throughout development. Younger turtle embryos appeared to exhibit a more robust capacity for preferential pHi regulation than turtles at post-hatch stages. Turtle embryos at 70% to hatch displayed a pHe reduction of ∼0.3 pH units, while pHi increased in brain, lung and white muscle; no changes in pHi were observed in heart, liver or kidney (Fig. 3). Embryos at 90% to hatch experienced a similar pHe reduction, accompanied by an increase in heart pHi, with no significant reductions in pHi of the other tissues. Post-hatch yearling turtles exhibited a slightly smaller pHe reduction (∼0.25 pH units) and also displayed no significant decreases in pHi of any tissue (Fig. 3) (Shartau et al., 2016). By our definition, all three of these stages exhibit preferential pHi regulation (see Fig. 1), but interestingly, as development proceeded, there were fewer tissues in which pHi was regulated above control values, which suggests a reduced capacity for preferential pHi regulation later in development. This would potentially culminate with coupled pH regulation in adults, which is supported by data showing that pHi in adult western painted turtles closely follows pHe reductions during hypercapnia associated with diving (Fig. 3) (Wasser et al., 1991).

Fig. 3.

Difference in blood and tissue pH during development in turtles. Difference in blood pH (pHe) and tissue pH (pHi) during development is shown following exposure to hypercarbia relative to normocarbia in common snapping turtles [Chelydra serpentina; at 70% (open bars) and 90% (shaded bars) to hatch, and in yearlings (dark shaded bars) (Shartau et al., 2016)] and adult western painted turtles [Chrysemys picta bellii, black bars (Wasser et al., 1991)]. Control pH values for pHe, and pHi of heart, liver, brain and muscle were subtracted from the values determined following either 1 h exposure to 13 kPa PCO2, 9 kPa PO2 in common snapping turtles or 1 h exposure to 6.5 kPa arterial PCO2 in western painted turtles. A value ≥0 is indicative of preferential pHi regulation. Bars for pHe are hatched.

Fig. 3.

Difference in blood and tissue pH during development in turtles. Difference in blood pH (pHe) and tissue pH (pHi) during development is shown following exposure to hypercarbia relative to normocarbia in common snapping turtles [Chelydra serpentina; at 70% (open bars) and 90% (shaded bars) to hatch, and in yearlings (dark shaded bars) (Shartau et al., 2016)] and adult western painted turtles [Chrysemys picta bellii, black bars (Wasser et al., 1991)]. Control pH values for pHe, and pHi of heart, liver, brain and muscle were subtracted from the values determined following either 1 h exposure to 13 kPa PCO2, 9 kPa PO2 in common snapping turtles or 1 h exposure to 6.5 kPa arterial PCO2 in western painted turtles. A value ≥0 is indicative of preferential pHi regulation. Bars for pHe are hatched.

Similarly, when American alligator embryos at 70% to hatch were exposed to 1 h hypercarbic hypoxia (13 kPa PCO2, 9 kPa PO2), they preferentially regulated pHi. A pHe reduction of ∼0.4 pH units corresponded to significant increases in heart and brain pHi; no pHi changes occurred in other tissues (i.e. no acidification; R.B.S., D.A.C., Z. F. Kohl, R. M. Elsey and C.J.B., unpublished observations). These findings indicate that embryonic American alligators also preferentially regulate pHi at this stage of development and thus utilize a different acid–base regulatory strategy than adults, consistent with turtles, as described above. Although snapping turtle and American alligator embryos preferentially regulate pHi during hypercarbia hypoxia, other studies observing preferential pHi regulation in adult fishes have used hypercarbia alone. The response to hypercarbia alone in amniote embryos is unknown; consequently, the possible differences that are due to the effects of hypoxia on pHe and pHi during hypercarbia should be considered.

It is intriguing to hypothesize that vertebrate embryos in general may rely on preferential pHi regulation to protect pHi against sustained extracellular acid–base changes and that this ability is lost at some point post-hatch in amniotes and in certain amphibians and fishes, where coupled pH regulation becomes the dominant strategy for acid–base regulation. Clearly, more work needs to be conducted on a range of embryonic vertebrates during exposure to hypercarbia, as well as other acid–base disturbances, to determine whether preferential pHi regulation is a general strategy of acid–base regulation during embryonic development.

Preferential pHi regulation: a potential developmental and evolutionary strategy to cope with acute acid–base disturbances

As mentioned above, we hypothesize that preferential pHi regulation may represent the basal pattern of acid–base regulation in vertebrates as a strategy during development, with adults either retaining or losing this trait. The mechanisms responsible for preferential pHi regulation are unknown, but allow embryos to compensate for acid–base challenges to pHi, despite the incomplete formation in embryos of the extracellular compartment and associated structures that are required for coupled pH regulation. These challenges apply to all embryos, and acid–base challenges may arise from hypoxia and hypercarbia or increased metabolic activity throughout development (Tazawa et al., 1983). In the specific examples described above, additional acid–base challenges may be experienced in the form of hypoxia or hypercarbia, conditions associated with nests or egg masses (Booth, 1998; Grigg et al., 2010; Lutz and Dunbar-Cooper, 1984). Furthermore, embryos encapsulated within extra-embryonic structures (e.g. eggshells) face additional restrictions on the diffusion of O2 and CO2 (Goldberg et al., 2008; Tazawa, 1980), which makes the exchange of gases and acid–base equivalents with the environment challenging and limits the ability of the embryo to undergo coupled pH regulation (Erasmus et al., 1971).

Although turtles and alligators appear to lose the capacity for preferential pHi regulation as adults, a number of adult fishes and an aquatic salamander preferentially regulate pHi (Fig. 2, Table 2), perhaps retaining this ability from embryonic development (although developmental studies are largely lacking and clearly remain worthy of investigation). This retention of preferential pHi regulation may be correlated with environmental conditions. For example, fish may lack the ability for coupled pH regulation because of the limited availability of acid–base equivalents in the water they inhabit. Tropical freshwater environments that are high in CO2 and ion-poor, such as the Amazon River, where water PCO2 can reach 8 kPa during diurnal fluctuations (Brauner et al., 2004; Heisler, 1984), may pose challenges for acid–base regulation and compensation through coupled pH regulation. Consequently, retention of preferential pHi regulation in adults could play a crucial role in acid–base regulation in tropical freshwater fishes; indeed, a number of fish species known to preferentially regulate pHi are found in the Amazon. It is possible that the first vertebrates to retain preferential pHi regulation as adults included species making the transition from ion-rich environments (e.g. marine waters) to ion-poor environments (e.g. tropical freshwaters) – similar to current tropical systems such as the Amazon Basin – where their capacity for coupled pH regulation was diminished and thus preferential pHi regulation may have protected pHi against severe acidoses, including those induced by high CO2 (Brauner and Baker, 2009; Shartau and Brauner, 2014). Vertebrates in ion-rich environments are likely to be able to use coupled pH regulation as there are sufficient acid–base equivalents for pHe compensation during severe acidoses, including those resulting from high CO2; this is observed in a number of marine species exposed to severe hypercarbia, including hagfish (Baker et al., 2015) and teleosts (Hayashi et al., 2004).

In adult bimodally breathing fishes, the retention of preferential pHi regulation may provide a means of coping with acid–base challenges associated with air breathing (Shartau and Brauner, 2014). These fishes are typically capable of O2 uptake from water or air, but excrete the majority of CO2 to the water. Consequently, in bimodally breathing fishes, air breathing may lead to a rapid increase in blood PCO2, as CO2 excretion rates at the gills are reduced as a result of emersion or reduced gill blood flow and/or gill ventilation. Depending on the species and conditions, blood PCO2 can increase to >3 kPa during an air-breathing episode (Shartau and Brauner, 2014). All fish species (with the exception of one, the white sturgeon) currently known to use preferential pHi regulation as adults are bimodal breathers. Air-breathing in fishes is thought to have evolved in more tropical environments that likely experience both hypoxia and hypercapnia; thus, these fishes may have already been subjected to selection pressures to retain preferential pHi regulation, which could then serve as an exaptation for air breathing (Brauner and Baker, 2009; Shartau and Brauner, 2014).

We hypothesize that preferential pHi regulation may have been an exaptation associated with niche expansion from water to land in the vertebrate lineage. This pattern of acid–base regulation possibly allowed these transitioning vertebrates, which likely possessed acid–base characteristics similar to those of present-day water breathers (high pHe, low arterial PCO2 and low plasma [HCO3]) and still relied on the gills for exchange of acid–base ion equivalents (Ultsch, 1996, 2012; Witzmann, 2015), to protect pHi during terrestrial excursions. Gradually, coupled pH regulation may have replaced preferential pHi regulation as the strategy to maintain whole-body pH as (1) these terrestrial excursions became longer, (2) the animals' blood acid–base status became more similar to that of terrestrial air breathers (higher arterial PCO2, higher plasma [HCO3] and lower pHe) and (3) the kidneys replaced the gills as the dominant organ for acid–base regulation.

The retention of preferential pHi regulation beyond development may be associated with survival during severe acute acid–base disturbances; however, this pattern of acid–base regulation is diminished and ultimately lost in many adult vertebrates. Why preferential pHi regulation was not retained more broadly can only be speculated upon at this time. Although preferential pHi regulation may be metabolically less costly than coupled pH regulation (Baker and Brauner, 2012) and protects cardiac performance during acute hypercarbia exposure (Baker et al., 2011; Hanson et al., 2009; Shartau et al., 2016), there may be unquantified long-term costs associated with preferential pHi regulation. This premise remains to be investigated. Ultimately, the benefit of preferential pHi regulation over coupled pH regulation is that vertebrate embryos and adults can completely protect pHi even if pHe reductions are uncompensated, as occurs during severe acute respiratory acidoses; limited data suggest that preferential pHi regulation may function to protect pHi during other types of acid–base disturbances (Harter et al., 2014; Shartau et al., 2016).

Conclusions and future perspectives

Preferential pHi regulation is a strategy of acid–base regulation that allows vertebrates to maintain pH homeostasis during severe acute acid–base disturbances under conditions in which compensation through coupled pH regulation would be limited. It has been observed in embryos of two amniote species, as well as in several adult vertebrates (Fig. 2). Based on recent findings in embryonic amniotes, we hypothesize that preferential pHi regulation may represent a general pattern of acid–base regulation in vertebrate embryos that is either retained or lost during development, likely depending upon acid–base challenges that these groups have experienced during adaptation to their environment. Consequently, we propose that many other vertebrates, including those that exhibit coupled pH regulation as adults, may rely exclusively on preferential pHi regulation during development; an area clearly worthy of further investigation. Finally, we hypothesize that the retention of preferential pHi regulation may have been an exaptation for a number of important evolutionary transitions in vertebrates, including the invasion of freshwater, the evolution of air breathing and the transition to land, events where acid–base homeostasis would otherwise be impaired (Brauner and Baker, 2009; Janis et al., 2012; Shartau and Brauner, 2014). The specific cellular and molecular mechanisms of preferential pHi regulation are currently unknown and represent a fascinating opportunity for further investigation. The role of preferential pHi regulation during development and vertebrate evolution are areas for research that remain largely unexplored, and experiments addressing these issues will likely provide valuable insight into what may represent a basal pattern of acid–base regulation in vertebrates.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers and C. Rutledge for valuable suggestions that improved the manuscript. S. L. Cornish Shartau is also thanked for useful discussions related to this work.

Footnotes

Author contributions

R.B.S. wrote the manuscript. All authors discussed and edited the manuscript.

Funding

R.B.S. was supported by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) CGS Scholarship. C.J.B. was supported by a NSERC Discovery Grant and Accelerator Supplement.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing or financial interests.