Microbial conversion of inorganic mercury (IHg) to methylmercury (MeHg) is a significant environmental concern because of the bioaccumulation and biomagnification of toxic MeHg in the food web. Laboratory incubation studies have shown that, despite the presence of large quantities of IHg in cell cultures, MeHg biosynthesis often reaches a plateau or a maximum within hours or a day by an as yet unexplained mechanism. Here we report that mercuric Hg(II) can be taken up rapidly by cells of Desulfovibrio desulfuricans ND132, but a large fraction of the Hg(II) is unavailable for methylation because of strong cellular sorption. Thiols, such as cysteine, glutathione, and penicillamine, added either simultaneously with Hg(II) or after cells have been exposed to Hg(II), effectively desorb or mobilize the bound Hg(II), leading to a substantial increase in MeHg production. The amount of thiol-desorbed Hg(II) is strongly correlated to the amount of MeHg produced (r = 0.98). However, cells do not preferentially take up Hg(II)−thiol complexes, but Hg(II)−ligand exchange between these complexes and the cell-associated proteins likely constrains Hg(II) uptake and methylation. We suggest that, aside from aqueous chemical speciation of Hg(II), binding and exchange of Hg(II) between cells and complexing ligands such as thiols and naturally dissolved organics in solution is an important controlling mechanism of Hg(II) bioavailability, which should be considered when predicting MeHg production in the environment.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Environmental Chemistry