Excretory nitrogen metabolism and defence against ammonia toxicity in air-breathing fishes

Authors

  • S. F. Chew,

    1. Natural Sciences and Science Education, National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, 1 Nanyang Walk, Singapore 637616, Republic of Singapore
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  • Y. K. Ip

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Biological Sciences, National University of Singapore, Kent Ridge, Singapore 117543, Republic of Singapore
    • Author to whom correspondence should be addressed. Tel.: +65 65162702; email: dbsipyk@nus.edu.sg

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Abstract

With the development of air-breathing capabilities, some fishes can emerge from water, make excursions onto land or even burrow into mud during droughts. Air-breathing fishes have modified gill morphology and morphometry and accessory breathing organs, which would tend to reduce branchial ammonia excretion. As ammonia is toxic, air-breathing fishes, especially amphibious ones, are equipped with various strategies to ameliorate ammonia toxicity during emersion or ammonia exposure. These strategies can be categorized into (1) enhancement of ammonia excretion and reduction of ammonia entry, (2) conversion of ammonia to a less toxic product for accumulation and subsequent excretion, (3) reduction of ammonia production and avoidance of ammonia accumulation and (4) tolerance of ammonia at cellular and tissue levels. Active ammonia excretion, operating in conjunction with lowering of ambient pH and reduction in branchial and cutaneous NH3 permeability, is theoretically the most effective strategy to maintain low internal ammonia concentrations. NH3 volatilization involves the alkalization of certain epithelial surfaces and requires mechanisms to prevent NH3 back flux. Urea synthesis is an energy-intensive process and hence uncommon among air-breathing teleosts. Aestivating African lungfishes detoxify ammonia to urea and the accumulated urea is excreted following arousal. Reduction in ammonia production is achieved in some air-breathing fishes through suppression of amino acid catabolism and proteolysis, or through partial amino acid catabolism leading to alanine formation. Others can slow down ammonia accumulation through increased glutamine synthesis in the liver and muscle. Yet, some others develop high tolerance of ammonia at cellular and tissue levels, including tissues in the brain. In summary, the responses of air-breathing fishes to ameliorate ammonia toxicity are many and varied, determined by the behaviour of the species and the nature of the environment in which it lives.

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