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Sulfuric acid in the phaeophyte alga Desmarestia munda deters feeding by the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis

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The phaeophyte alga Desmarestia munda (Order Desmarestiales) concentrates sulfuric acid (H2SO4) in cell vacuoles. The primary function of the accumulated acid in the alga's life history is unknown. To investigate if sulfuric acid works as a chemical defense, grazing by the sea urchin herbivore Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis on D. munda was compared to grazing on four common non-acidic phaeophyte algae (Alaria marginata, Laminaria saccharina, Costaria costata, and Nereocystis luetkeana) in multiple-choice feeding preference experiments. Both fed and starved urchins discriminated among algae; N. luetkeana and L. saccharina were consumed preferentially to D. munda and A. marginata. Fed urchins consumed a smaller quantity of A. marginata and D. munda than the starved urchins (15–28% less). The lack of preference for D. munda was not correlated with the presence of polyphenolic compounds or with nitrogen concentration. A. marginata had a high polyphenolic concentration (0.8% DM, dry mass) compared to that of the other four algae (0.08–0.24% DM). The nutritional content (C:N ratio and percent nitrogen) of the five algae ranged from 10.8 to 16.2 and from 2.08 to 3.55, respectively, but was not correlated with food choice by the urchins. Sulfuric acid made up nearly 16% DM of D. munda tissue and the pH of homogenized tissues averaged 1.99 pH units. Sulfuric acid, added to prepared food to provide a range of pH values from 1.9 to 6.2 pH units, deterred feeding by urchins at pH values ≤3.5 pH units. This result provides direct evidence that sulfuric acid at concentrations found in algal tissues deters grazing by S. droebachiensis. Therefore, acid accumulation in D. munda provides an important ecological defense against grazing by this herbivore.

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Pelletreau, .K., Muller-Parker, .G. Sulfuric acid in the phaeophyte alga Desmarestia munda deters feeding by the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis. Marine Biology 141, 1–9 (2002).

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