MADISON - Mercury is a potent neurotoxin and a worrisome environmental contaminant, but the severity of its threat appears to depend on what else is in the water.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that the presence of dissolved organic material increases the biological risk of aqueous mercury and may even serve as an environmental mercury source.
Mercury is present throughout the environment in small quantities in rocks and in watery environments, including lakes, wetlands and oceans. It accumulates in fish living in mercury-contaminated waters, posing a health risk to animals and humans who eat the tainted fish.
The greatest threat comes from a form called methylmercury, which is more easily taken up by living tissues. The methylation process, therefore, is key to understanding the potential danger posed by environmental mercury, says UW-Madison geomicrobiologist John Moreau.
He presented his research findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco today (Dec. 10).
Environmental mercury is predominantly methylated by naturally occurring bacteria known as sulfate-reducing bacteria. These bacteria - Moreau calls them "little methylmercury factories" - absorb inorganic mercury from the water, methylate it and spit methylmercury back out into the environment.
"The bacteria take mercury from a form that is less toxic to humans and turn it into a form that is much more toxic," Moreau says. "[Methylation] increases mercury's toxicity by essentially putting it on a fast train into your tissue - it increases its mobility."
Many previous studies have focused on the chemical interactions between mercury and sulfur, which is known to bind to inorganic mercury and may regulate how well the bacteria can absorb it. However, scientists do not understand the factors that control the methylation process itself.
"Those studies have related methylation poten
|Contact: John Moreau|
University of Wisconsin-Madison