Root Effect Hemoglobin May Have Evolved to Enhance General Tissue Oxygen Delivery

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Science  14 Jun 2013:
Vol. 340, Issue 6138, pp. 1327-1329
DOI: 10.1126/science.1233692

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Holding Your Breath

Hemoglobin and myoglobin are widely responsible for oxygen transport and storage (see the Perspective by Rezende). The ability of diving mammals to obtain enough oxygen to support extended dives and foraging is largely dependent on muscle myoglobin (Mb) content. Mirceta et al. (p. 1303) found that in mammalian lineages with an aquatic or semiaquatic lifestyle, Mb net charge increases, which may represent an adaptation to inhibit self-association of Mb at high intracellular concentrations. Epistasis results from nonadditive genetic interactions and can affect phenotypic evolution. Natarajan et al. (p. 1324) found that epistatic interactions were able to explain the increased hemoglobin oxygen-binding affinity observed in deer mice populations at high altitude. In mammals, the offloading of oxygen from hemoglobin is facilitated by a reduction in the blood's pH, driven by metabolically produced CO2. However, in fish, a reduction in blood pH reduces oxygen carrying capacity of hemoglobin. Rummer et al. (p. 1327) implanted fiber optic oxygen sensors within the muscles of rainbow trout and found that elevated CO2 levels in the water led to acidosis and elevated oxygen tensions.


The Root effect is a pH-dependent reduction in hemoglobin-O2 carrying capacity. Specific to ray-finned fishes, the Root effect has been ascribed specialized roles in retinal oxygenation and swimbladder inflation. We report that when rainbow trout are exposed to elevated water carbon dioxide (CO2), red muscle partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) increases by 65%—evidence that Root hemoglobins enhance general tissue O2 delivery during acidotic stress. Inhibiting carbonic anhydrase (CA) in the plasma abolished this effect. We argue that CA activity in muscle capillaries short-circuits red blood cell (RBC) pH regulation. This acidifies RBCs, unloads O2 from hemoglobin, and elevates tissue PO2, which could double O2 delivery with no change in perfusion. This previously undescribed mechanism to enhance O2 delivery during stress may represent the incipient function of Root hemoglobins in fishes.

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