The size and functional capacity of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and associated organs vary in response to environmental cues. The GI tract and associated organs are also very metabolically active in animals. Hence, animals may reduce the size and function of their GI tract to conserve energy when deprived of food. The main aims of this study were to investigate how Silurus meridionalis regulates the function and structure of its GI tract and associated organs during starvation. Starvation induced a decrease in both maintenance metabolism (MO(2rest), decreased by approximately 50%) and respiratory frequency (indicated by double side gill activity and notated as f(R), decreased by 29%). Lipase, trypsin and aminopeptidase-A showed a similar reduction in mass-specific activities during starvation, but pepsin and α-amylase did not. The starvation of experimental fish resulted in a significant reduction in body weight, the wet mass of the liver and the digestive-somatic system, the hepato-somatic index and the condition factor whereas the wet masses of the GI tract, pancreas, gall bladder and the relative intestinal length did not vary significantly during starvation. The reduction in liver wet mass was the main reason for the decrease in the wet mass of digestive-somatic system in this species. Only the mucosal area of the PI was affected significantly by starvation, decreasing by 34% at the end of the experiment. S. meridionalis displayed a decreasing intestinal mucosal area towards the distal intestine, and this gradient was not affected by starvation. The morphology and structure of both the GI tract and the liver were greatly down-regulated, as indicated by decreases in liver cell size, the mucosal thickness of the stomach and intestine, the density of goblet cells and microvilli surface area (MVSA), implying that food deprivation greatly impaired the digestive and absorptive functions of the GI tract in S. meridionalis. When deprived of food, S. meridionalis can endure harsh periods of starvation and adaptively down-regulate the function and structure of the digestive tract with physiological and biochemical strategies.
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