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Extreme blood-boosting capacity of an Antarctic fish represents an adaptation to life in a sub-zero environment

Journal article
Authors Jeroen Brijs
Michael Axelsson
Malin Rosengren
Fredrik Jutfelt
Albin Gräns
Published in Journal of Experimental Biology
Volume 223
Issue 2
ISSN 0022-0949
Publication year 2020
Published at Department of marine sciences
Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences
Language en
Keywords Blood pressure, Cardiac workload, Cold adaptation, Haematocrit, Metabolism, Notothenioids
Subject categories Biological Sciences


Blood doping, the practice of boosting the oxygen carrying capacity of blood, is an illegal strategy used by human athletes to enhance aerobic capacity and athletic performance. Interestingly, the practice of boosting blood oxygen carrying capacity is also naturally prevalent in the animal kingdom via the splenic release of stored erythrocytes. Here, we demonstrate that an Antarctic notothenioid fish, the bald notothen (Pagothenia borchgrevinki), is a master of this practice. Because of the sub-zero environment these fish inhabit, they sequester a large proportion of erythrocytes in the spleen during times of inactivity to reduce the energetic and physiological costs associated with continuously pumping highly viscous blood around the body. However, in response to metabolically demanding situations (i.e. exercise and feeding), these fish contract the spleen to eject stored erythrocytes into circulation, which boosts blood oxygen carrying capacity by up to 207% (cf. exercise-induced increases of ∼40-60% in a range of other vertebrates and ∼5-25% in blood-doping athletes). By evaluating cardiorespiratory differences between splenectomized (unable to release erythrocytes from the spleen) and sham-operated individuals, we demonstrate the metabolic benefits (i.e. aerobic scope increase of 103%) and the cardiovascular trade-offs (i.e. ventral aortic blood pressure and cardiac workload increase of 12% and 30%, respectively) associated with the splenic blood-boosting strategy. In conclusion, this strategy provides bald notothens with an extraordinary facultative aerobic scope that enables an active lifestyle in the extreme Antarctic marine environment, while minimizing the energetic and physiological costs of transporting highly viscous blood during times of reduced energetic demand.

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