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Microbial Mercury Methylation in Aquatic Environments : A Critical Review of Published Field and Laboratory Studies

Regnell, Olof LU and Watras, Carl J. (2019) In Environmental Science and Technology 53(1). p.4-19
Abstract

Methylmercury (MeHg) is an environmental contaminant of concern because it biomagnifies in aquatic food webs and poses a health hazard to aquatic biota, piscivorous wildlife and humans. The dominant source of MeHg to freshwater systems is the methylation of inorganic Hg (IHg) by anaerobic microorganisms; and it is widely agreed that in situ rates of Hg methylation depend on two general factors: the activity of Hg methylators and their uptake of IHg. A large body of research has focused on the biogeochemical processes that regulate these two factors in nature; and studies conducted within the past ten years have made substantial progress in identifying the genetic basis for intracellular methylation and defining the processes that govern... (More)

Methylmercury (MeHg) is an environmental contaminant of concern because it biomagnifies in aquatic food webs and poses a health hazard to aquatic biota, piscivorous wildlife and humans. The dominant source of MeHg to freshwater systems is the methylation of inorganic Hg (IHg) by anaerobic microorganisms; and it is widely agreed that in situ rates of Hg methylation depend on two general factors: the activity of Hg methylators and their uptake of IHg. A large body of research has focused on the biogeochemical processes that regulate these two factors in nature; and studies conducted within the past ten years have made substantial progress in identifying the genetic basis for intracellular methylation and defining the processes that govern the cellular uptake of IHg. Current evidence indicates that all Hg methylating anaerobes possess the gene pair hgcAB that encodes proteins essential for Hg methylation. These genes are found in a large variety of anaerobes, including iron reducers and methanogens; but sulfate reduction is the metabolic process most often reported to show strong links to MeHg production. The uptake of Hg substrate prior to methylation may occur by passive or active transport, or by a combination of both. Competitive inhibition of Hg uptake by Zn speaks in favor of active transport and suggests that essential metal transporters are involved. Shortly after its formation, MeHg is typically released from cells, but the efflux mechanisms are unknown. Although methylation facilitates Hg depuration from the cell, evidence suggests that the hgcAB genes are not induced or favored by Hg contamination. Instead, high MeHg production can be linked to high Hg bioavailability as a result of the formation of Hg(SH)2, HgS nanoparticles, and Hg-thiol complexes. It is also possible that sulfidic conditions require strong essential metal uptake systems that inadvertently bring Hg into the cytoplasm of Hg methylating microbes. In comparison with freshwaters, Hg methylation in open ocean waters appears less restricted to anoxic environments. It does seem to occur mainly in oxygen deficient zones (ODZs), and possibly within anaerobic microzones of settling organic matter, but MeHg (CH3Hg+) and Me2Hg ((CH3)2Hg) have been shown to form also in surface water samples from the euphotic zone. Future studies may disclose whether several different pathways lead to Hg methylation in marine waters and explain why Me2Hg is a significant Hg species in oceans but seemingly not in most freshwaters.

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author
organization
publishing date
type
Contribution to journal
publication status
published
subject
in
Environmental Science and Technology
volume
53
issue
1
pages
4 - 19
publisher
The American Chemical Society
external identifiers
  • scopus:85059431496
ISSN
0013-936X
DOI
10.1021/acs.est.8b02709
language
English
LU publication?
yes
id
2fe7b875-5d51-4cfa-81e6-11ced9548778
date added to LUP
2019-01-16 11:21:53
date last changed
2019-02-20 11:43:13
@article{2fe7b875-5d51-4cfa-81e6-11ced9548778,
  abstract     = {<p>Methylmercury (MeHg) is an environmental contaminant of concern because it biomagnifies in aquatic food webs and poses a health hazard to aquatic biota, piscivorous wildlife and humans. The dominant source of MeHg to freshwater systems is the methylation of inorganic Hg (IHg) by anaerobic microorganisms; and it is widely agreed that in situ rates of Hg methylation depend on two general factors: the activity of Hg methylators and their uptake of IHg. A large body of research has focused on the biogeochemical processes that regulate these two factors in nature; and studies conducted within the past ten years have made substantial progress in identifying the genetic basis for intracellular methylation and defining the processes that govern the cellular uptake of IHg. Current evidence indicates that all Hg methylating anaerobes possess the gene pair hgcAB that encodes proteins essential for Hg methylation. These genes are found in a large variety of anaerobes, including iron reducers and methanogens; but sulfate reduction is the metabolic process most often reported to show strong links to MeHg production. The uptake of Hg substrate prior to methylation may occur by passive or active transport, or by a combination of both. Competitive inhibition of Hg uptake by Zn speaks in favor of active transport and suggests that essential metal transporters are involved. Shortly after its formation, MeHg is typically released from cells, but the efflux mechanisms are unknown. Although methylation facilitates Hg depuration from the cell, evidence suggests that the hgcAB genes are not induced or favored by Hg contamination. Instead, high MeHg production can be linked to high Hg bioavailability as a result of the formation of Hg(SH)<sub>2</sub>, HgS nanoparticles, and Hg-thiol complexes. It is also possible that sulfidic conditions require strong essential metal uptake systems that inadvertently bring Hg into the cytoplasm of Hg methylating microbes. In comparison with freshwaters, Hg methylation in open ocean waters appears less restricted to anoxic environments. It does seem to occur mainly in oxygen deficient zones (ODZs), and possibly within anaerobic microzones of settling organic matter, but MeHg (CH<sub>3</sub>Hg<sup>+</sup>) and Me<sub>2</sub>Hg ((CH<sub>3</sub>)<sub>2</sub>Hg) have been shown to form also in surface water samples from the euphotic zone. Future studies may disclose whether several different pathways lead to Hg methylation in marine waters and explain why Me<sub>2</sub>Hg is a significant Hg species in oceans but seemingly not in most freshwaters.</p>},
  author       = {Regnell, Olof and Watras, Carl J.},
  issn         = {0013-936X},
  language     = {eng},
  number       = {1},
  pages        = {4--19},
  publisher    = {The American Chemical Society},
  series       = {Environmental Science and Technology},
  title        = {Microbial Mercury Methylation in Aquatic Environments : A Critical Review of Published Field and Laboratory Studies},
  url          = {http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acs.est.8b02709},
  volume       = {53},
  year         = {2019},
}