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Unformatted text preview: 273 The Journal of Experimental Biology 198, 273–281 (1995)
Printed in Great Britain © The Company of Biologists Limited 1995 REVIEW
NITROGEN EXCRETION: THREE END PRODUCTS, MANY PHYSIOLOGICAL
PATRICIA A. WRIGHT
Department of Zoology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1G 2W1 Summary
There are diverse physiological functions of nitrogen end
chemical properties in solution. Ammonia metabolism and
products in different animal groups, including excretion,
excretion are linked to acid–base regulation in the kidney,
acid–base regulation, osmoregulation and buoyancy.
but the role of urea and uric acid is less clear. Both
Animals excrete a variety of nitrogen waste products, but
invertebrates and vertebrates use nitrogen-containing
ammonia, urea and uric acid predominate. A major factor
organic compounds as intracellular osmolytes. In some
in determining the mode of nitrogen excretion is the
marine invertebrates, NH4+ is sequestered in speciﬁc
availability of water in the environment. Generally, aquatic
compartments to increase buoyancy.
animals excrete mostly ammonia, whereas terrestrial
animals excrete either urea or uric acid. Ammonia, urea
Key words: ammonia, urea, uric acid, excretion, metabolism,
membrane transport, acid–base balance, osmoregulation, buoyancy,
and uric acid are transported across cell membranes by
different mechanisms corresponding to their different Who excretes what?
Animals excrete three main nitrogen products, ammonia,
urea and uric acid (Fig. 1), as well as some minor nitrogen
excretory products, including trimethylamine oxide, guanine,
creatine, creatinine and amino acids. The term ammonia will
be used to indicate the total ammonia, whereas NH3 and NH4+
will refer to non-ionic ammonia and ammonium ion,
respectively. Whether an animal excretes predominantly
ammonia, urea or uric acid depends upon a number of factors
in the animal’s environment. But one major problem that all
animals face is the relatively toxicity of ammonia when it is
concentrated in body tissues.
Aquatic animals are generally more tolerant of elevated
blood ammonia levels than terrestrial animals. In teleost ﬁsh,
plasma total ammonia concentrations may vary between 0.05
and 1 mmol l 1 (e.g. Wright et al. 1993), but when plasma
ammonia levels approach 2 mmol l 1 in arctic char, ﬂaccid
paralysis results (Lumsden et al. 1993). In contrast, blood
ammonia levels greater than 0.05 mmol l 1 can be toxic to the
central nervous system of most mammals (Meijer et al. 1990).
Ammonia exerts its toxic effects at many different levels (for
a review, see Cooper and Plum, 1987). Elevated levels of
ammonia modify the properties of the blood–brain barrier
(Sears et al. 1985), interfere with amino acid transport (Mans
et al. 1983), disrupt cerebral blood ﬂow (Andersson et al.
1981), impede excitatory amino acid neurotransmitter
metabolism, particularly that of glutamate and aspartate
(Hindfelt et al. 1977), and cause morphological changes in
astrocytes and neurons (Gregorios et al. 1985). NH4+ interrupts nerve conduction by directly substituting for K+ in ionexchange mechanisms (Binstock and Lecar, 1969).
Furthermore, ammonia has been shown to alter carbohydrate
and fat metabolism and ATP levels, not only in the brain, but
in other tissues as well (Wiechetek et al. 1979). Which of these
toxic effects is most detrimental is not clear but, taken together,
they can result in convulsions, coma and eventually death.
Therefore, nitrogen excretory strategies must be designed to
avoid the toxic accumulation of ammonia.
Aquatic versus terrestrial animals
Aquatic animals, including invertebrates, ﬁsh and larval
amphibians, excrete mostly ammonia. Ammonia is highly
soluble in water and permeates cell membranes relatively
easily. Despite its high solubility, an animal must use 400 ml
of water to dilute every gram of ammonia to maintain ammonia
concentrations below toxic levels. Only animals that respire in
water, therefore, excrete ammonia as their major nitrogen
During the evolution of terrestrial animals, water
conservation became an important concern. Most terrestrial
animals convert ammonia to either urea or uric acid,
compounds that can be concentrated in body ﬂuids to a greater
extent than ammonia with no toxic effect. Urea requires about
10 times less water than ammonia for excretion, whereas uric
acid is highly insoluble and requires about 50 times less water.
Terrestrial animals, therefore, can simultaneously conserve
water and eliminate nitrogenous wastes. A classic example of 274 P. A. WRIGHT
Cellular proteins Hydrolysis
Ingested proteins Amino acids Growth
of excess HCO3−
Retention Urea Retention Uric acid
Excreted Excreted Excreted Fig. 1. General overview of nitrogen metabolism and excretion in animals. The three main nitrogen excretory products are highlighted in boxes. the inﬂuence of water availability on nitrogenous excretion is
seen in amphibians during development. As tadpoles, Rana
catesbeiana live in water and excrete about 80 % of their
nitrogen wastes as ammonia. But during metamorphosis,
enzymes involved in urea synthesis are induced and a gradual
transformation occurs from ammonia to urea excretion (Brown
et al. 1959; Atkinson, 1994).
Unusual patterns of nitrogen excretion
Water availability is clearly an important factor in the mode
of nitrogen excretion; however, it is not the whole story. For
instance, some terrestrial snails (Speeg and Campbell, 1968),
crabs (Greenaway and Nakamura, 1991; De Vries and Wolcott,
1993) and isopods (Wieser and Schweizer, 1969; Wright and
O’Donnell, 1993) excrete a signiﬁcant portion of their nitrogen
wastes by ammonia volatilization. In contrast, a completely
aquatic teleost ﬁsh, Oreochromis alcalicus grahami, living in
Lake Magadi (pH 10), excretes no ammonia, only urea
(Randall et al. 1989; Wood et al. 1989). Elasmobranch ﬁsh that
retain urea as an osmolyte (see below), such as the marine
dogﬁsh (Squalus acanthias), also excrete most of their nitrogen
wastes as urea (urea 98 %, ammonia 2 %; C. M. Wood, P. Part
and P. A. Wright, in preparation). How are nitrogen end products formed?
Ammonia is mostly formed from the catabolism of proteins
(Fig. 1). Both ingested and cellular proteins are hydrolysed to
form a pool of amino acids that can be used to form new
proteins for growth and basic protein turnover. Unlike
carbohydrates and lipids, amino acids cannot be stored to any
great extent in animal tissues (although they are retained as
osmolytes in some marine animals, see below). The excess
amino acids, not used in protein production, are catabolised to
ammonia, which is either excreted or converted to urea or uric
acid in the liver. In animals that are very sensitive to ammonia,
such as mammals, ammonia is transported in the blood as
glutamine, before it is converted to urea for excretion. In
addition to amino acid catabolism, nitrogenous end products
may also result from purine, methylamine and creatine
As stated above, the major route for ammonia formation is
through amino acid catabolism, usually in the liver. Most Lamino acids are ﬁrst transaminated to form glutamate,
catalysed by a group of transaminase enzymes. Glutamate is
then deaminated to form NH4+ and -ketoglutarate, catalysed Nitrogen excretion 275 Table 1. Enzymes concerned with nitrogen metabolism for which a cDNA clone is available
Pathway Animal group Ornithine–urea cycle Mammals Uric acid synthesis Reference Elasmobranchs
Mammals Carbamoyl phosphate synthetase I
Carbamoyl phosphate synthetase I
Carbamoyl phosphate synthetase III
Glutamate dehydrogenase Mammals
Birds Phosphate-dependent glutaminase
Glutamine synthetase Amphibians Uricolysis
Ammonia synthesis Enzyme by glutamate dehydrogenase (GDH). Transdeamination is the
term given to this two-step process. Ammonia can also be
released from urea by the action of urease, present in some
mollusc (Speeg and Campbell, 1969) and coral (Barnes and
Crossland, 1976) tissues and contained in microorganisms in
the liver tissue of two shark species (Knight et al. 1988), but
more importantly in the digestive tract of most animals.
The best illustration of digestive microbial activity is in
ruminants; urea produced in the liver is recycled through the
rumen, where it is degraded to ammonia by microbial urease
(Church, 1975). The ammonia produced supports microbial
protein synthesis, an especially important process for animals
on low-protein diets (Kay et al. 1980).
Uric acid metabolism
Uric acid is formed from the metabolism of adenine- and
guanine-based purines. In animals that lack the uric acid
degradation enzyme uricase, birds, reptiles (except chelonians
from mesic, semi-aquatic and aquatic habitats; Campbell et al.
1987), some amphibians (e.g. Phyllomedusa sauvegei,
Chiromantis xerampelina; Dantzler, 1989) and most insects
(Cochran, 1985), uric acid constitutes the major nitrogenous
end product. Uricase is also not expressed in hominoid
primates (Varela-Echavarria et al. 1988) and uric acid has
proved to be a powerful radical scavenger and antioxidant in
many human tissues (Becker, 1993). However, elevated blood
uric acid levels can lead to the painful condition termed gouty
The ﬁnal enzyme in the uric acid formation pathway,
xanthine dehydrogenase, is missing in arachnids and,
consequently, guanine is the major excretory product in these
animals (Anderson, 1965).
Urea is synthesized from NH4+ and HCO3 in the liver via
the ornithine–urea cycle (OUC; for a review, see Meijer et al. Adcock and O’Brien (1984)
Takiguchi et al. (1984)
Freytag et al. (1984)
O’Brien et al. (1986)
Ohtake et al. (1988)
Helbing et al. (1992)
Helbing et al. (1992)
Xu et al. (1993)
Hong et al. (1994)
Wu et al. (1989)
Amuro et al. (1989)
Das et al. (1987)
Shapiro et al. (1991)
Debatisse et al. (1988)
deGroot et al. (1987)
Campbell and Smith (1992) 1990). Urea may also be formed from the degradation of uric
acid or arginine (for a review, see Campbell, 1991).
Elasmobranchs, the coelacanth, amphibians and mammals
utilize the OUC, whereas most invertebrates and teleosts
synthesize urea by uricolysis or argininolysis. As mentioned
above, a few teleostean species synthesize signiﬁcant amounts
of urea in response to environmental conditions that limit
ammonia excretion (O. a. grahami, Randall et al. 1989; Opsanus
beta, Walsh et al. 1990; Heteropneustes fossilis, Saha and Ratha,
1989). These species are unique in expressing the full
complement of OUC enzymes, but in other adult teleosts, some
of the genes for OUC enzymes appear to be repressed (e.g.
Wright, 1993; for reviews, see Campbell and Anderson, 1991;
Mommsen and Walsh, 1991). Key OUC enzymes are absent in
adult rainbow trout, but are expressed around the time of
hatching in larval trout (Dépêche et al. 1979; Wright et al. 1995).
Hence, OUC genes may be retained and expressed during the
early life stages in all teleosts, but a functional OUC persists in
mature ﬁsh only in cases where unusual environmental
conditions predicate ureotelism. The question remains as to why
larval trout express OUC enzymes; possibly the OUC is used as
a ‘safeguard’ mechanism to prevent ammonia toxicity during a
particularly sensitive stage of neural development.
How is synthesis regulated?
Regulation of enzyme synthesis
Metabolic control can be separated into the regulation of de
novo protein synthesis and the regulation of ‘pre-existing’
enzymes. Table 1 is a partial list of enzymes related to nitrogen
metabolism for which a cDNA clone is available. Most of the
cloning studies have concentrated on mammalian species.
Recently, genes for OUC enzymes have been cloned in
amphibians (Helbing et al. 1992: Xu et al. 1993) and
elasmobranchs (Hong et al. 1994). A single glutamine
synthetase gene has also been identiﬁed in elasmobranch liver
that codes for two isoenzymes expressed in different dogﬁsh 276 P. A. WRIGHT (Squalus acanthias) tissues (Campbell and Anderson, 1991).
In addition, Campbell and Smith (1992) have cloned the gene
for glutamine synthetase in the chicken. As the same or similar
genes are cloned in various animals, evolutionary relationships
can be determined. For instance, glutamine synthetase has been
cloned in various plant and animal species and has proved to
be a good molecular clock, i.e. the rate of gene evolution is
regular between phylogenetically diverse species (Pesole et al.
Regulation of ‘pre-existing’ enzyme
Modiﬁcation of pre-existing enzymes, may involve
(1) allosteric regulation, (2) covalent modiﬁcation, (3) changes
in the rate of enzyme turnover or degradation and/or
(4) regulation of the assembly states of proteins or enzyme
complexes. The ﬁrst three regulatory mechanisms are
described in any biochemistry textbook, so I will only discuss
the regulation of enzyme complexes, a relatively new
development. It has been proposed that the major function of
enzyme complexes is to provide a means of direct transfer of
substrates or modulators from one enzyme to another (for
reviews, see Srere, 1987; Somero and Hand, 1990).
Channelling of substrates from enzyme to enzyme in the OUC
has been demonstrated in mammals (Wanders et al. 1984;
Meijer, 1985; Cheung et al. 1989). Watford (1989) described
the OUC as a ‘metabolon’, spanning both the mitochondrial
and cytosolic compartments. To my knowledge, OUC
channelling has not been investigated in animals other than
mammals. The enzyme responsible for the ﬁrst step in the
pathway, carbamoyl phosphate synthetase, and the
mitochondrial/cytosolic distribution of OUC enzymes are quite
different in ﬁsh and mammals (Mommsen and Walsh, 1989). Transport of nitrogen end products
Ammonia exists in solution as both NH3 and NH4+. The
NH3/NH4+ ratio varies with pH, the pK of the reaction being
about 9.5. NH3 is a small molecule (molecular mass 17), is
moderately lipid-soluble and penetrates cell membranes
mainly by lipid-phase permeation (Fig. 2). Although most cell
membranes are highly permeable to NH3, recent studies
indicate that gastric gland cells (Waisbren et al. 1994), the
renal thick ascending limb tubule cells (Garvin et al. 1988;
Kikeri et al. 1989; Flessner and Knepper, 1993) and Xenopus
oocyte plasma membranes (Burckhardt and Frömter, 1992) are
relatively impermeable to NH3. NH3 levels are higher in more
alkaline compartments (e.g. extracellular ﬂuid), but total
ammonia levels are higher in more acidic compartments (e.g.
intracellular ﬂuid), because NH3 diffuses across the cell
membrane, picks up H+ and is ‘trapped’ as NH4+ (Wright et
al. 1988a,b). Thus, in the kidney (Knepper et al. 1989) and
gills (Wright et al. 1989), an acidic disequilibrium pH in the
tubule lumen or in the water next to the gill surface facilitates
NH3 secretion. Cell
5 Fig. 2. Transport mechanisms for ammonia, uric acid and urea.
Dashed lines indicate non-speciﬁc permeation pathways through the
lipid bilayer, whereas solid lines refer to transport through specialized
protein carriers or channels. Ammonia can substitute for K+ or Na+
in the Na+/K+-ATPase pump, in Na +/2Cl /K+ cotransport, in Na+/H+
exchanger (1) or in the K+ channel (2). Urate may be transported by
either a urate uniporter (3) or a urate/anion exchanger (4). There may
be several types of urea transporters (5), some requiring the presence
of ions, some of which may be active and some of which are
vasopressin-sensitive, but in many tissues the evidence supports a
facilitated transporter that is sensitive to inhibition by phloretin and
urea analogs. NH4+ transport across cell membranes is dependent on both
the concentration and the electrical potential gradient. Owing
to its charge, NH4+ cannot easily penetrate the lipid bilayer and
requires specialized transport pathways (Fig. 2). NH4+ has the
same hydrated ionic radius as K+ and can substitute for K+ in
the Na+/K+-ATPase transporter (Towle and Holleland, 1987)
and the Na+/2Cl /K+ cotransporter (Good et al. 1984). NH4+
also has a limited ability to penetrate K+ channels (for a review,
see Knepper et al. 1989). In many epithelial tissues, NH4+ also
interacts with the H+/Na+ exchanger, substituting for Na+
(Kinsella and Aronson, 1981).
Uric acid has a pK1 of 5.4 and, consequently, it is present Regulation of acid–base balance
There has been a large amount of research on the role of
ammonia in acid–base regulation. Anaerobic metabolism
during exhaustive exercise results in muscle acidiﬁcation and
NH3 formation from adenylate metabolism. Ammonia formed
in exercising muscle is mostly retained during the recovery
period and is believed to play a role in intracellular buffering
(Dudley and Terjung, 1985; Mommsen and Hochachka, 1988).
Ammonia synthesis and excretion in the kidney play an
important role in regulating chronic acidosis. Although most
of the research has been done in mammals, there is evidence
for a similar response in other animal groups (Fig. 3). The
increase in renal ammonia excretion results in an increase in
net acid excretion (ammonia excretion + titratable acid
bicarbonate excretion), returning systemic blood
pH towards normal values. Glutamine metabolism to NH4+ and
HCO3 is increased during chronic metabolic acidosis (Wright
et al. 1992; for a review, see Tannen, 1992). The HCO3
produced is retained by the kidney and returned to the systemic
circulation, while NH4+ is excreted in the urine (for a review,
see Knepper et al. 1989).
The data are sketchy on uric acid excretion and acid–base
regulation. It might be predicted that acidosis would result in
a decrease in uric acid excretion, thereby retaining base 500
al 100 Bi
Urea crosses cell membranes by two fundamental ways,
through specialized membrane transporters or through nonspeciﬁc aqueous pores (for a review, see Marsh and Knepper,
1992). Urea permeability varies widely; for example, in the
mammalian kidney, values range from 0.4 10 5 cm s 1 in the
cortical collecting duct to 69 10 5 cm s 1 in the terminal
portion of the inner medullary collecting duct (Knepper and
Chou, 1995). Although speciﬁc urea transporters are thought
to be present in many animal tissues (Schmidt-Nielsen and
Rabinowitz, 1964; Kaplan et al. 1974; Katz et al. 1981; Walsh
et al. 1994), very little is known about the molecular nature of
these transport systems. On the basis of their physiological
characteristics, however, it appears that several types of ureatransporting proteins may be present in animal tissues.
Recently, the complementary DNA for a urea transporter from
rabbit renal medulla has been isolated and characterized (You
et al. 1993). Using this cDNA as a probe, researchers can now
search for similar transporters in other tissues and species. 277 600 Co
n as the urate salt of K+, Na + or NH 4+ under most physiological
condition. In insect Malpighian tubules (O’Donnell et al. 1983)
and vertebrate renal tubules (Dantzler, 1989; Abramson and
Lipowitz, 1990), uric acid is actively secreted; however, there
appear to be differences in the mechanism of transport between
animal groups. Evidence for both a urate/anion exchanger
(antiporter) and a urate uniporter exists (Fig. 2). Increase in renal ammonia excretion (%) Nitrogen excretion Fig. 3. Percentage increase in renal ammonia excretion during
acidosis in various vertebrate groups. Excretion rates have been
normalized so that control rates are 100 % in each each study.
(Modiﬁed from Wolbach, 1955; Yoshimura et al. 1961; King and
Goldstein, 1983 a,b; Knepper et al. 1989.) equivalents. However, uric acid excretion is not correlated with
the systemic acid–base state in locusts (Harrison and Kennedy,
1994). Alkalosis is accompanied by an increase in urate
excretion in snakes (Dantzler, 1968), but whether this response
is present in other uricotelic organisms is unknown.
It has been proposed that hepatic urea synthesis plays a
central role in regulating chronic acid–base disturbances
(Atkinson, 1992). Clearly, urea production is inﬂuenced by
acid–base perturbations (Haussinger and Gerok, 1985;
Atkinson, 1992), but there is no direct evidence that urea
synthesis plays a primary role in regulating systemic pH in
mammals and ﬁsh (Halperin et al. 1986; Barber and Walsh,
1993). It has been suggested, however, that the functional
signiﬁcance of urea recycling in bears during hibernation is to
regulate acid–base status by eliminating excess HCO3
(Guppy, 1986). The acid–base status of hibernating bears has
not been measured, primarily because of the practical
difficulties of working with such large carnivores. Bears do not
urinate or defecate during hibernation, but if HCO3 is
released as CO2 through the lungs (Nelson et al. 1975), then
no advantage would be gained by incorporating HCO3 into
urea. Radiotracer studies of urea metabolism along with blood
acid–base measurements in hibernating bears are necessary
before this interesting question can be resolved. Osmoregulation and nitrogen metabolism
Many marine invertebrate species (Simpson et al. 1959),
hagﬁsh (Robertson, 1976) and elasmobranchs (for a review,
see Goldstein and Perlman, 1995) accumulate amino acids in
intracellular compartments to counterbalance the osmotic
pressure of sea water. The most commonly occurring amino 278 P. A. WRIGHT acid osmolytes in these organisms are glycine, alanine, proline,
-alanine and taurine (for a review, see Yancey et al. 1982).
The use of amino acids for osmoregulation is not limited to
aquatic species. Heilig et al. (1989) have demonstrated that, in
salt-loaded rats, amino acids accumulate along with
methylamines and polyols in brain tissue.
Homer Smith (1936) ﬁrst discovered that marine
elasmobranchs retain relatively high levels of urea and
trimethylamine oxide (TMAO) as a strategy for
osmoregulation. Subsequent studies on the coelacanth revealed
a similar scenario (Griffith et al. 1974). Urea is known to
destabilize macromolecules, but a 2:1 ratio of urea:TMAO
counteracts these effects and stabilizes proteins (Yancey et al.
1982). Several amphibian species (for a review, see
McClanahan et al. 1994) and estivating lungﬁsh (Smith, 1930)
accumulate urea when dehydrated. During dormancy, high
urea levels would inactivate enzymes reversibly and suppress
metabolic activity (Hochachka and Somero, 1984).
To counterbalance the effects of elevated urea and NaCl
concentrations in the mammalian kidney, cells of the medulla
accumulate organic solutes, methylamines (mostly betaine and
glycerophosphorylcholine) and sugar alcohols (mostly sorbitol
and myoinositol). These four osmolytes protect the medullary
cells from the potentially harmful effects of elevated interstitial
NaCl and urea concentrations (for a review, see Garcia-Perez
and Burg, 1991). Nitrogen and buoyancy in marine organisms
Some marine invertebrates have solved the problem of
neutral or positive buoyancy in the water column by
manipulating the ionic composition of their internal
environment. One strategy is to substitute NH4+ for heavier
ions, such as Ca2+, Mg2+ and SO42 . For example, tunicate
embryos (Lambert and Lambert, 1978) and pelagic shrimp
(Sanders and Childress, 1988) and squid (Clarke et al. 1979)
sequester NH4+ in ﬂoat cells or specialized chambers at
concentrations between 300 and 500 mmol l 1. Squid blood
ammonia concentrations are relatively low, and when large
nerves were exposed to the ammonia levels found in the ﬂoat
chamber, conduction was impeded (Clarke et al. 1979). Hence,
it appears that only selected ‘buoyancy’ tissues are capable of
coping with potentially toxic levels of ammonia.
The author wishes to thank Dr Pat Walsh for helpful
comments on the manuscript. This review is based on a
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