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How ocean acidification and warming could affect the culturing of pearls

American Chemical Society

Pearls have adorned the necklines of women throughout history, but some evidence suggests that the gems' future could be uncertain. Increasingly acidic seawater causes oyster shells to weaken, which doesn't bode well for the pearls forming within. But, as scientists report in ACS' journal Environmental Science & Technology, the mollusks might be more resilient to changing conditions than previously thought.

Pearl aquaculture is big business, particularly in Asia and Australia. But much of it takes place in oceans, which are susceptible to the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide human activity releases into the atmosphere. CO2 from the air gets absorbed by the oceans, which become more acidic as a result. Research has found that pearl oysters produce weaker shells under these conditions, and this could hurt their chances of survival. But in addition to acidity, rising water temperature could also play a role in oyster health. Rongqing Zhang, Liping Xie and colleagues wanted to see how combining acidity and water temperature would affect pearl oysters.

The researchers tested oysters for two months under varying water temperature and pH conditions, including those predicted for oceans in 2100. Their results confirmed previous work that had found boosting acidity led to weaker shells, but that effect didn't occur when the water temperature was also higher. The researchers concluded that warmer oceans could buffer these valuable marine animals from increasingly acidic seawater.

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The authors acknowledge funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the China Postdoctoral Science Foundation.

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