Copper is essential for healthy cellular functioning, but this heavy metal quickly becomes toxic when supply exceeds demand. Marine sediments receive widespread and increasing levels of copper contamination from antifouling paints owing to the 2008 global ban of organotin-based products. The toxicity of copper will increase in the coming years as seawater pH decreases and temperature increases. We used a factorial mesocosm experiment to investigate how increasing sediment copper concentrations and the presence of a cosmopolitan bioturbating amphipod, Corophium volutator, affected a range of ecosystem functions in a soft sediment microbial community. The effects of copper on benthic nutrient release, bacterial biomass, microbial community structure and the isotopic composition of individual microbial membrane [phospholipid] fatty acids (PLFAs) all differed in the presence of C. volutator. Our data consistently demonstrate that copper contamination of global waterways will have pervasive effects on the metabolic functioning of benthic communities that cannot be predicted from copper concentrations alone; impacts will depend upon the resident macrofauna and their capacity for bioturbation. This finding poses a major challenge for those attempting to manage the impacts of copper contamination on ecosystem services, e.g. carbon and nutrient cycling, across different habitats. Our work also highlights the paucity of information on the processes that result in isotopic fractionation in natural marine microbial communities. We conclude that the assimilative capacity of benthic microbes will become progressively impaired as copper concentrations increase. These effects will, to an extent, be mitigated by the presence of bioturbating animals and possibly other processes that increase the influx of oxygenated seawater into the sediments. Our findings support the move towards an ecosystem approach for environmental management.
Mayor, D. J., Gray, N. B., Elver-Evans, J., Midwood, A. J., & Thornton, B. (2013). Metal-macrofauna interactions determine microbial community structure and function in copper contaminated sediments. PloS ONE, 8(5), [e64940]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0064940