Biochemical mechanisms of biomineralization and elemental incorporation in otoliths: implications for fish and fisheries research
AuthorThomas, OIiver Robert Bion
AffiliationSchool of BioSciences
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2019 Dr Oliver Robert Bion Thomas
All vertebrates have small bioinorganic “earstones” in their inner ear labyrinth that are essential for hearing and balance. While otoliths play a vital anatomical role in fish, their true value to science is as biochronometers, largely due to their unique pattern of growth. Otoliths first form in embryo and continue to grow throughout the life of an individual, with a double-banded increment composed of a calcium carbonate-rich region and a protein-rich region being deposited daily. In addition to this, they are considered to be metabolically inert, and do not undergo remodelling or resorption. Consequently, otoliths are employed in a variety of ways in fish ecology. Firstly, an individual fish’s age and growth rate can be estimated through counting increments and measuring their widths. Secondly, analysis of increment trace element:calcium ratios, such as by laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS), can allow for the reconstruction of environmental histories, aiding in the determination of natal origin, movement, habitat use, diet and the impacts of climate change. The utility of specific trace elements as indicators of environmental change, however, is unclear as there is considerable uncertainty as to whether a given trace element is interacting with the mineral or protein components of an increment. This uncertainty is a consequence of otolith research having been largely focussed upon either microstructure or inorganic chemistry, with very few studies on the protein-rich regions of the otolith. As a result, very little is understood about the biochemical mechanisms of biomineralization or trace element incorporation. This is important, as the mechanisms that govern otolith formation and growth underpin the assumptions made in traditional increment analyses. In this thesis, I initially undertook a systematic review of all the literature pertaining to otolith biochemistry, revealing the significant gaps that exist in otolith biochemistry as a discipline. Importantly, I determined that fewer than a score of otolith proteins had been identified – a stark contrast to the hundreds or thousands of proteins that have been identified in comparable biomineral systems such as enamel or bone. Working on black bream (Acanthopagrus butcheri), an extensively studied species endemic to southern Australia, I used size exclusion chromatography coupled with ICP-MS to determine the trace element:protein interactions in endolymph, the inner ear fluid that otoliths are submerged in, and the source of all of its constituents. In this study, I assayed 22 elements, and determined that 12 were solely present in a protein-bound form, 6 were present as free ions, and 4 were present in both forms. This allowed me to make recommendations as to their utility in environmental reconstructions. In my next study, I created a unique, multi-disciplinary workflow that combined transcriptomics with proteomics. In this study, I sequenced the transcriptome of the black bream inner ear and used this to identify proteins from the separated organic phase of otoliths and endolymph from wild caught adult black bream. This resulted in the discovery of hundreds of previously unknown proteins, providing new insights into the likely biochemical mechanisms involved in otolith formation and growth. In my final study, I tested the utility of trace element ratios in environmental reconstructions. Specifically, I compared the ability of different cluster analysis approaches to resolve spatial and temporal differences in the likely spawning and larval nursery habitats of juvenile black bream in the Gippsland Lakes, Australia. The results from my thesis have allowed me to make recommendations as to the utility of trace elements in environmental reconstructions and have revealed exciting new avenues of research that fuse ecology and biochemistry.
Keywordsotolith; proteomics; metallomics; endolymph; inner ear; biomineralization; cluster analysis; Acanthopagrus butcheri; black bream; Gippsland Lakes; laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry
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