Nitrogen handling in the elasmobranch gut: a role for microbial urease [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Chris M. Wood, Hon Jung Liew, Gudrun De Boeck, J. Lisa Hoogenboom, and W. Gary Anderson

Ureotelic elasmobranchs require nitrogen for both protein growth and urea-based osmoregulation, and therefore are probably nitrogen-limited in nature. Mechanisms exist for retaining and/or scavenging nitrogen in the gills, kidney, rectal gland and gut, but as yet, the latter are not well characterized. Intestinal sac preparations of the Pacific spiny dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias suckleyi) incubated in vitro strongly reabsorbed urea from the lumen after feeding, but mucosal fluid ammonia concentrations increased with incubation time. Phloretin (0.25 mmol l–1, which blocked urea reabsorption) greatly increased the rate of ammonia accumulation in the lumen. A sensitive [14C]urea-based assay was developed to examine the potential role of microbial urease in this ammonia production. Urease activity was detected in chyme/intestinal fluid and intestinal epithelial tissue of both fed and fasted sharks. Urease was not present in gall-bladder bile. Urease activities were highly variable among animals, but generally greater in chyme than in epithelia, and greater in fed than in fasted sharks. Comparable urease activities were found in chyme and epithelia of the Pacific spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei), a ureotelic holocephalan, but were much lower in ammonotelic teleosts. Urease activity in dogfish chyme was inhibited by acetohydroxamic acid (1 mmol l–1) and by boiling. Treatment of dogfish gut sac preparations with acetohydroxamic acid blocked ammonia production, changing net ammonia accumulation into net ammonia absorption. We propose that microbial urease plays an important role in nitrogen handling in the elasmobranch intestine, allowing some urea-N to be converted to ammonia, which is then reabsorbed for amino acid synthesis or reconversion to urea.

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