Pulsed 86Sr-labeling and NanoSIMS imaging to study coral biomineralization at ultra-structural length scales
A method to label marine biocarbonates is developed based on a concentration enrichment of a minor stable isotope of a trace element that is a natural component of seawater, resulting in the formation of biocarbonate with corresponding isotopic enrichments. This biocarbonate is subsequently imaged with a NanoSIMS ion microprobe to visualize the locations of the isotopic marker on sub-micrometric length scales, permitting resolution of all ultra-structural details. In this study, a scleractinian coral, Pocillopora damicornis, was labeled 3 times with Sr-86-enhanced seawater for a period of 48 h with 5 days under normal seawater conditions separating each labeling event. Two non-specific cellular stress biomarkers, glutathione-S-transferase activity and porphyrin concentration plus carbonic anhydrase, an enzymatic marker involved in the physiology of carbonate biomineralization, as well as unchanged levels of zooxanthellae photosynthesis efficiency indicate that coral physiological processes are not affected by the Sr-86-enhancement. NanoSIMS images of the Sr-86/Ca-44 ratio in skeleton formed during the experiment allow for a determination of the average extension rate of the two major ultra-structural components of the coral skeleton: Rapid Accretion Deposits are found to form on average about 4.5 times faster than Thickening Deposits. The method opens up new horizons in the study of biocarbonate formation because it holds the potential to observe growth of calcareous structures such as skeletons, shells, tests, spines formed by a wide range of organisms under essentially unperturbed physiological conditions.