By identifying two genes required for transforming inorganic into organic mercury, which is far more toxic, scientists today have taken a significant step toward protecting human health.
The question of how methylmercury, an organic form of mercury, is produced by natural processes in the environment has stumped scientists for decades, but a team led by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory has solved the puzzle. Results of the study, published in the journal Science, provide the genetic basis for this process, known as microbial mercury methylation, and have far-reaching implications.
"Until now, we did not know how the bacteria convert mercury from natural and industrial processes into methylmercury," said ORNL's Liyuan Liang, a co-author and leader of a large Department of Energy-funded mercury research program that includes researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia and University of Tennessee.
"This newly gained knowledge will allow scientists to study proteins responsible for the conversion process and learn what controls the activity," said Liang, adding that it may lead to ways of limiting methylmercury production in the environment.
For some 40 years scientists have known that when mercury is released into the environment certain bacteria can transform it into highly toxic methylmercury. Exactly how bacteria make this happen has eluded scientists. The challenge was to find proteins that can transfer a certain type of methyl group and to identify the genes responsible for their production.
Ultimately, by combining chemical principles and genome sequences, the team identified two genes, which they named hgcA and hgcB. Researchers experimentally deleted these genes one at a time from two strains of bacteria, which caused the resulting mutants to lose the ability to produce methylmercury. Reinserting these genes restored that capability, thus verifying the discovery.
The researchers found that this two-gene cluster is present in all known mercury-methylating bacteria, and they predicted that more than 50 other microorganisms may methylate mercury because they have a pair of similar genes.
Another key to the development was the collection of talent assembled to work on this problem.
"This discovery was made possible by our diverse team, which includes scientists with expertise in chemistry, computational biology, microbiology, neutron science, biochemistry and bacterial genetics," said Liang, who rated this paper as one of the most satisfying of her career.
Mercury is a toxin that spreads around the globe mainly through the burning of coal, industrial use and through natural processes such as volcanic eruptions. The chemical element bioaccumulates in aquatic food chains, especially in large fish. Various forms of mercury are widely found in sediments and water.
In a report just released by the United Nations Environmental Programme, Achiim Steiner, United Nations under-secretary general and executive director of UNEP, notes that "mercury remains a major global, regional and national challenge in terms of threats to human health and the environment."
DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory: http://www.ornl.gov
This press release was posted to serve as a topic for discussion. Please comment below. We try our best to only post press releases that are associated with peer reviewed scientific literature. Critical discussions of the research are appreciated. If you need help finding a link to the original article, please contact us on twitter or via e-mail.
After decades of work, physicists say they are a year or two away from detecting ripples in spacetime
Sheets of programmable matter can be made to pop into complex 3D shapes 100 times taller than their original thickness when heated, and could find uses in medicine
A particle physics student has used his downtime to build a Lego model of the world's most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and is now lobbying the toy company to take it to market.
Get the full the story behind a $761 jar of peanut butter and other exorbitantly priced everyday objects used by scientists
Satellite imagery shows 20 new craters around holes discovered last year in Siberia
Young maths whizz from Iran uses simple equations to paint stunning images that bizarrely look like marine objects, and makes a fractal Africa
A new breed of the hyper-accurate clocks could help scientists detect the elusive ripples in space-time faster and cheaper
Replacing the spark plugs in engines with lasers could lead to more complete fuel combustion and greener cars
After a two-year hiatus, the Large Hadron Collider will restart soon, twice as strong and with some "dark" mysteries to unlock
Global antibiotic resistance is imperilling our existence. We need clever ways to find new bug-beating drugs