Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Mussel byssus attachment weakened by ocean acidification


Biomaterials connect organisms to their environments. Their function depends on biological, chemical and environmental factors, both at the time of creation and throughout the life of the material. Shifts in the chemistry of the oceans driven by anthropogenic CO2 (termed ocean acidification) have profound implications for the function of critical materials formed under these altered conditions. Most ocean acidification studies have focused on one biomaterial (secreted calcium carbonate), frequently using a single assay (net rate of calcification) to quantify whether reductions in environmental pH alter how organisms create biomaterials1. Here, we examine biological structures critical for the success of ecologically and economically important bivalve molluscs. One non-calcified material, the proteinaceous byssal threads that anchor mytilid mussels to hard substrates, exhibited reduced mechanical performance when secreted under elevated p CO 2 conditions, whereas shell and tissue growth were unaffected. Threads made under high p CO 2 (>1,200 μatm) were weaker and less extensible owing to compromised attachment to the substratum. According to a mathematical model, this reduced byssal fibre performance, decreasing individual tenacity by 40%. In the face of ocean acidification, weakened attachment presents a potential challenge for suspension-culture mussel farms and for intertidal communities anchored by mussel beds.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Performance of byssal threads as a function of p CO 2 treatment.
Figure 2: Performance of byssal thread components.


  1. Kroeker, K. J., Kordas, R. L., Crim, R. N. & Singh, G. G. Meta-analysis reveals negative yet variable effects of ocean acidification on marine organisms. Ecol. Lett. 13, 1419–1434 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Ocean Acidification Due to Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Policy document 12/05 (The Royal Society, 2005).

  3. Feely, R. A., Sabine, C. L., Hernandez-Ayon, J. M., Ianson, D. & Hales, B. Evidence for upwelling of corrosive ‘acidified’ water onto the continental shelf. Science 320, 1490–1492 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  4. Hoegh-Guldberg, O. et al. Coral reefs under rapid climate change and ocean acidification. Science 318, 1737–1742 (2007).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. O’Donnell, M. J. et al. Ocean acidification alters skeletogenesis and gene expression in larval sea urchins. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 398, 157–171 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Melzner, F. et al. Food supply and seawater p CO 2 impact calcification and internal shell dissolution in the blue mussel Mytilus edulis. PLoS ONE 6, e24223 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Bibby, R., Widdicombe, S., Parry, H., Spicer, J. & Pipe, R. Effects of ocean acidification on the immune response of the blue mussel Mytilus edulis. Aquat. Biol. 2, 67–74 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Gaylord, B. et al. Functional impacts of ocean acidification in an ecologically critical foundation species. J. Exp. Biol. 214, 2586–2594 (2011).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. FAO Yearbook: Fishery and Aquaculture Statistics, 2009 (Statistics and Information Service of the Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, 2011).

  10. Carrington, E. & Gosline, J. M. Mechanical design of mussel byssus: Load cycle and strain rate dependence. Am. Malacol. Bull. 18, 135–142 (2004).

    Google Scholar 

  11. Harrington, M. J. & Waite, J. H. Holdfast heroics: Comparing the molecular and mechanical properties of Mytilus californianus byssal threads. J. Exp. Biol. 210, 4307–4318 (2007).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Bell, E. & Gosline, J. Mechanical design of mussel byssus: Material yield enhances attachment strength. J. Exp. Biol. 199, 1005–1017 (1996).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Lee, H., Scherer, N. F. & Messersmith, P. B. Single-molecule mechanics of mussel adhesion. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 12999–13003 (2006).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  14. Zhao, H. & Waite, J. H. Linking adhesive and structural proteins in the attachment plaque of Mytilus californianus. J. Biol. Chem. 281, 26150–26158 (2006).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Waite, J. H. & Broomell, C. C. Changing environments and structure–property relationships in marine biomaterials. J. Exp. Biol. 215, 873–883 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Carrington, E. Seasonal variation in the attachment strength of blue mussels: Causes and consequences. Limnol. Oceanogr. 47, 1723–1733 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Denny, M. W. & Gaylord, B. Marine ecomechanics. Annu. Rev. Mar. Sci. 2, 89–114 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Denny, M. & Helmuth, B. Confronting the physiological bottleneck: A challenge from ecomechanics. Integr. Comput. Biol. 49, 197–201 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Wootton, J. T., Pfister, C. A. & Forester, J. D. Dynamic patterns and ecological impacts of declining ocean pH in a high-resolution multi-year dataset. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 18848–18853 (2008).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Carrington, E., Moeser, G. M., Dimond, J., Mello, J. J. & Boller, M. L. Seasonal disturbance to mussel beds: Field test of a mechanistic model predicting wave dislodgment. Limnol. Oceanogr. 54, 978–986 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Lachance, A.A., Myrand, B., Tremblay, R., Koutitonsky, V. & Carrington, E. Biotic and abiotic factors influencing attachment strength of blue mussels Mytilus edulis in suspended culture. Aquat. Biol. 2, 119–129 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Nicklisch, S. C. T. & Waite, J. H. Mini-review: The role of redox in Dopa-mediated marine adhesion. Biofouling 28, 865–877 (2012).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Paine, R. T. & Levin, S. A. Intertidal landscapes: Disturbance and the dynamics of pattern. Ecol. Monogr. 51, 145–178 (1981).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Robbins, L. L., Hansen, M. E., Kleypas, J. A. & Meylan, S. C. CO2calc—A User-friendly Seawater Carbon Calculator for Windows, Max OS X, and iOS (iPhone) US Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010-1280 (USGS, 2010).

  25. Dickson, A. G., Sabine, C. L. & Christian, J. R. (eds) Guide to Best Practices for Ocean CO2 Measurements Vol. 3 (PICES Spec. Publ., 2007).

  26. Moeser, G. M. & Carrington, E. Seasonal variation in mussel byssal thread mechanics. J. Exp. Biol. 209, 1996–2003 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. R Development Core Team R: A Language and Environment for Statistical Computing (R Foundation for Statistical Computing, 2010).

Download references


Thanks to M. Herko and L. Newcomb for assistance with water chemistry and animal care, and L. Miller for help with figures. This work was supported by NSF award #DBI0829486 to K. Sebens, T. Klinger and J. Murray, and by NSF award #EF104113 to E. Carrington.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



M.J.O., E.C. and M.N.G. designed the experiment, analysed data and wrote the paper. M.J.O. and M.N.G. conducted the experiment.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Michael J. O’Donnell.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 254 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

O’Donnell, M., George, M. & Carrington, E. Mussel byssus attachment weakened by ocean acidification. Nature Clim Change 3, 587–590 (2013).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing