Atmospheric copper inhibits phytoplankton growth in the Mediterranean

Atmospheric particles with high concentrations of copper cause a significant decrease in marine phytoplankton biomass in the western Mediterranean.

The results suggest this toxic effect may impact large areas of the ocean.

Researchers from the CSIC (Spanish National Research Council) published today in the prestigious journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America) a study that shows the negative effect of copper present in aerosols on marine phytoplankton.The study uses data of copper concentration in atmospheric particles obtained in the Montseny station in Catalonia as well as the analysis of chlorophyll data obtained in satellite images and conducted by researchers from the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA, UIB-CSIC) and the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA, CSIC). The research has shown that aerosols with high concentrations of copper are toxic to marine phytoplankton. Globally, copper emissions to the atmosphere caused by human activity have increased significantly in the last century. Currently they are 10 times the natural emissions. This increase may have contributed to the overall decline of phytoplankton in the last 100 years.

To date, the positive effect of fertilization produced by aerosols coming from the Sahara desert, which are rich in nutrients, is well-known. However, this study demonstrates for the first time that atmospheric dust deposits can also have negative effects. On top of nutrients (nitrates, phosphates, etc.) from Africa, northern winds also bring to the Mediterranean a large deal of anthropogenic compounds such as heavy metals. Dr. Antoni Jordi, IMEDEA researcher, states that “this effect is more evident when aerosols are deposited in the sea during the summer season. This is because during this season marine phytoplankton communities in the Mediterranean are dominated by nanoflagellates, which are more sensitive to the effect of copper”.

The results of this research are a major step towards understanding the interactions between the atmospheric chemistry of copper and the dynamics of marine phytoplankton. These processes are complex, involving physical, chemical and biological factors that affect the solubility, speciation and bioavailability of this metal uptake by different phytoplankton species. In fact, it is unlikely that the negative impact of aerosols is limited to phytoplankton, as toxicity can be transferred through food chains to additional marine organisms.

Although the published study focuses on the Mediterranean, the results suggest that other large ocean areas may be equally vulnerable to copper of atmospheric origin, since concentrations of this metal in aerosols, as measured in other areas, are similar or even higher than those determined in the western Mediterranean. For example, highly industrialized areas like North America and East Asia may be causing similar impacts on large areas like the subtropical Atlantic Ocean, the North Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific Ocean.

This study was conducted in the IMEDEA (CSIC-UIB) and IDAEA (CSIC) in the framework of the funded projects CONCORDA (PN 384/2011), CHARMEX (CTM2011-14036-E), EHRE (CTM2009-08270), VAMOS (CGL2010-19464-CLI), GRACCIE (CSD2007-00067), and CARIATI (CGL2008-06294/CLI). Antoni Jordi is a Ramón y Cajal researcher funded by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness.

Bibliographic Ref: Antoni Jordi, Gotzon Basterretxea, Antonio Tovar-Sanchez, Andres Alastuey, and Xavier Querol. Copper aerosols inhibit phytoplankton growth in the Mediterranean Sea.

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