Just two genes make mercury more toxic

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Image by Thomas Splettstoesser

No, those aren’t old Cheetos.

Those are some of the bacteria responsible for changing elemental mercury (Hg) to the highly toxic methylmercury. In a recent paper published by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists have discovered two critical genes within bacteria that are required to make this transformation.

OK, you say, so what does this have to do with aquatic ecology? This discovery is a big deal, because mercury, coming in from the atmosphere (coal and chlor-alkali plants) or through natural sources (cinnabar in the local geology) is being transformed to methylmercury in all kinds of aquatic systems, from small ponds to open oceans.

Once in an aquatic system, methylmercury bioaccumulates up the food chain, from microscopic plankton to big predators like salmon. Humans then consume these contaminated fish—at great risk. Effects of mercury poisoning range from kidney damage to severe neurological impairment (the Hatter was mad for a reason).

If scientists like Dr. Liyuan Liang and her colleagues continue to make progress on understanding how methylation works on a bacterial level, proactively mitigating mercury and methylmercury in aquatic systems becomes more and more of a possibility. Interested? Read some more about  methylmercury and aquatic ecology.

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