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FEMS Microbiol Rev. 1997 Apr;19(4):239-62.

Distribution, diversity and evolution of the bacterial mercury resistance (mer) operon.

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School of Biological Sciences, Donnan Laboratories, University of Liverpool, UK.


Mercury and its compounds are distributed widely across the earth. Many of the chemical forms of mercury are toxic to all living organisms. However, bacteria have evolved mechanisms of resistance to several of these different chemical forms, and play a major role in the global cycling of mercury in the natural environment. Five mechanisms of resistance to mercury compounds have been identified, of which resistance to inorganic mercury (HgR) is the best understood, both in terms of the mechanisms of resistance to mercury and of resistance to heavy metals in general. Resistance to inorganic mercury is encoded by the genes of the mer operon, and can be located on transposons, plasmids and the bacterial chromosome. Such systems have a worldwide geographical distribution, and furthermore, are found across a wide range of both Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria from both natural and clinical environments. The presence of mer genes in bacteria from sediment cores suggest that mer is an ancient system. Analysis of DNA sequences from mer operons and genes has revealed genetic variation both in operon structure and between individual genes from different mer operons, whilst analysis of bacteria which are sensitive to inorganic mercury has identified a number of vestigial non-functional operons. It is hypothesised that mer, due to its ubiquity with respect to geographical location, environment and species range, is an ancient system, and that ancient bacteria carried genes conferring resistance to mercury in response to increased levels of mercury in natural environments, perhaps resulting from volcanic activity. Models for the evolution of both a basic mer operon and for the Tn21-related family of mer operons and transposons are suggested. The study of evolution in bacteria has recently become dominated by the generation of phylogenies based on 16S rRNA genes. However, it is important not to underestimate the roles of horizontal gene transfer and recombinational events in evolution. In this respect mer is a suitable system for evaluating phylogenetic methods which incorporate the effects of horizontal gene transfer. In addition, the mer operon provides a model system in the study of environmental microbiology which is useful both as an example of a genotype which is responsive to environmental pressures and as a generic tool for the development of new methodology for the analysis of bacterial communities in natural environments.

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