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Environ Sci Technol. 2013 Mar 19;47(6):2441-56. doi: 10.1021/es304370g. Epub 2013 Feb 27.

Mechanisms regulating mercury bioavailability for methylating microorganisms in the aquatic environment: a critical review.

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Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Duke University , 121 Hudson Hall, Box 90287, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA.


Mercury is a potent neurotoxin for humans, particularly if the metal is in the form of methylmercury. Mercury is widely distributed in aquatic ecosystems as a result of anthropogenic activities and natural earth processes. A first step toward bioaccumulation of methylmercury in aquatic food webs is the methylation of inorganic forms of the metal, a process that is primarily mediated by anaerobic bacteria. In this Review, we evaluate the current state of knowledge regarding the mechanisms regulating microbial mercury methylation, including the speciation of mercury in environments where methylation occurs and the processes that control mercury bioavailability to these organisms. Methylmercury production rates are generally related to the presence and productivity of methylating bacteria and also the uptake of inorganic mercury to these microorganisms. Our understanding of the mechanisms behind methylation is limited due to fundamental questions related to the geochemical forms of mercury that persist in anoxic settings, the mode of uptake by methylating bacteria, and the biochemical pathway by which these microorganisms produce and degrade methylmercury. In anoxic sediments and water, the geochemical forms of mercury (and subsequent bioavailability) are largely governed by reactions between Hg(II), inorganic sulfides, and natural organic matter. These interactions result in a mixture of dissolved, nanoparticulate, and larger crystalline particles that cannot be adequately represented by conventional chemical equilibrium models for Hg bioavailability. We discuss recent advances in nanogeochemistry and environmental microbiology that can provide new tools and unique perspectives to help us solve the question of how microorganisms methylate mercury. An understanding of the factors that cause the production and degradation of methylmercury in the environment is ultimately needed to inform policy makers and develop long-term strategies for controlling mercury contamination.

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