Review Article | Open Access
Uranium Speciation and Bioavailability in Aquatic Systems: An Overview
The speciation of uranium (U) in relation to its bioavailability is reviewed for surface waters (fresh- and seawater) and their sediments. A summary of available analytical and modeling techniques for determining U speciation is also presented. U(VI) is the major form of U in oxic surface waters, while U(IV) is the major form in anoxic waters. The bioavailability of U (i.e., its ability to bind to or traverse the cell surface of an organism) is dependent on its speciation, or physicochemical form. U occurs in surface waters in a variety of physicochemical forms, including the free metal ion (U4+ or UO22+) and complexes with inorganic ligands (e.g., uranyl carbonate or uranyl phosphate), and humic substances (HS) (e.g., uranyl fulvate) in dissolved, colloidal, and/or particulate forms. Although the relationship between U speciation and bioavailability is complex, there is reasonable evidence to indicate that UO22+ and UO2OH+ are the major forms of U(VI) available to organisms, rather than U in strong complexes (e.g., uranyl fulvate) or adsorbed to colloidal and/or particulate matter. U(VI) complexes with inorganic ligands (e.g., carbonate or phosphate) and HS apparently reduce the bioavailability of U by reducing the activity of UO22+ and UO2OH+. The majority of studies have used the results from thermodynamic speciation modeling to support these conclusions. Time-resolved laser-induced fluorescence spectroscopy is the only analytical technique able to directly determine specific U species, but is limited in use to freshwaters of low pH and ionic strength. Nearly all of the available information relating the speciation of U to its bioavailability has been derived using simple, chemically defined experimental freshwaters, rather than natural waters. No data are available for estuarine or seawater. Furthermore, there are no available data on the relationship between U speciation and bioavailability in sediments. An understanding of this relationship has been hindered due to the lack of direct quantitative U speciation techniques for particulate phases. More robust analytical techniques for determining the speciation of U in natural surface waters are needed before the relationship between U speciation and bioavailability can be clarified.