Correlation of trimethylamine oxide and habitat depth within and among species of teleost fish: an analysis of causation

Physiol Biochem Zool. 2007 Mar-Apr;80(2):197-208. doi: 10.1086/510566. Epub 2007 Jan 5.


Most shallow-water teleosts have moderate levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO; approximately 50 mmol/kg wet mass), a common osmolyte in many other marine animals. Recently, muscle TMAO contents were found to increase linearly with depth in six families. In one hypothesis, this may be an adaptation to counteract the deleterious effects of pressure on protein function, which TMAO does in vitro. In another hypothesis, TMAO may be accumulated as a by-product of acylglycerol (AG) production, increasing with depth because of elevated lipid metabolisms known to occur in some deep-sea animals. Here we analyze muscle TMAO contents and total body AG (mainly triacyglycerol [TAG]) levels in 15 species of teleosts from a greater variety of depths than sampled previously, including eight individual species caught at two or more depths. Including data of previous studies (total of 17 species, nine families), there is an apparent sigmoidal increase in TMAO contents between 0- and 1.4-km depths, from about 40 to 150 mmol/kg. From 1.4 to 4.8 km, the increase appears to be linear (r2=0.91), rising to 261 mmol/kg at 4.8 km. The trend also occurred within species: in most cases in which a species was caught at two or more depths, TMAO was higher in the deeper-caught specimens (e.g., for Coryphaenoides armatus, TMAO was 173, 229, and 261 mmol/kg at 1.8, 4.1, and 4.8 km, respectively). TMAO contents not only were consistent within species at a given depth but also did not vary with season or over a wide range of body masses or TAG contents. Thus, no clear link between TMAO and lipid was found. However, TMAO contents might correlate with the rate (rather than content) of TAG production, which could not be quantified. Overall, the data strongly support the hypothesis that TMAO is adaptively regulated with depth in deep-sea teleosts. Whether lipid metabolism is the source of that TMAO is a question that remains to be tested fully.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Weight
  • Ecosystem*
  • Fishes / metabolism*
  • Methylamines / analysis*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / chemistry*
  • Pacific Ocean
  • Pressure*
  • Species Specificity
  • Triglycerides / analysis


  • Methylamines
  • Triglycerides
  • trimethyloxamine