The microalga Phaeocystis antarctica is tolerant to salinity and metal mixture toxicity interactions

Publication Name

Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts


Salinity in the Antarctic nearshore marine environment is seasonally dynamic and climate change is driving greater variability through altered sea ice seasons, ocean evaporation rates, and increased terrestrial ice melt. The greatest salinity changes are likely to occur in the nearshore environment where elevated metal exposures from historical waste or wastewater discharge occur. How salinity changes affect metal toxicity has not yet been investigated. This study investigated the toxicity of cadmium, copper, nickel, lead, and zinc, and their equitoxic mixtures across a salinity gradient to the Antarctic marine microalga Phaeocystis antarctica. In the metal-free control exposures, algal population growth rates were significantly lower at salinities <20 PSU or >35 PSU compared to the control growth rate at 35 PSU of 0.60 ± 0.05 doublings per day and there was no growth below 10 or above 68 PSU. Salinity-induced changes to metal speciation and activity were investigated using the WHAM VII model. Percentages of free ion activity and metal-organic complexes increased at decreasing salinities while the activity of inorganic metal complexes increased with increasing salinities. Despite metal speciation and activity changes, toxicity was generally unchanged across the salinity gradient except that there was less copper toxicity and more lead toxicity than model predictions at salinities of 15 and 25 PSU and antagonistic interactions in metal-mixture treatments. In mixtures with and without copper, it was shown that copper was responsible for ∼50% of the antagonism from observed toxicity at salinities below 45 PSU. Across all treatments, using different metal fractions in toxicity models did not improve toxicity predictions compared to dissolved metal concentrations. These results provide evidence that P. antarctica is unlikely to be at a greater risk from metal contaminants as a result of salinity changes.

Open Access Status

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Funding Sponsor

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation



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