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

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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.


External organisations
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Microbiology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-19
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number1
Early online date2018
Publication statusPublished - 2019
Publication categoryResearch