Methylation of Mercury by Bacteria Exposed to Dissolved, Nanoparticulate, and Microparticulate Mercuric Sulfides

TitleMethylation of Mercury by Bacteria Exposed to Dissolved, Nanoparticulate, and Microparticulate Mercuric Sulfides
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2012
AuthorsZhang, T, Kim, B, Levard, C, Reinsch, BC, Lowry, GV, Deshusses, MA, Hsu-Kim, H
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Pagination6950 - 6958
Date Published07/2012

The production of the neurotoxic methylmercury in the environment is partly controlled by the bioavailability of inorganic divalent mercury (Hg(II)) to anaerobic bacteria that methylate Hg(II). In sediment porewater, Hg(II) associates with sulfides and natural organic matter to form chemical species that include organic-coated mercury sulfide nanoparticles as reaction intermediates of heterogeneous mineral precipitation. Here, we exposed two strains of sulfate-reducing bacteria to three forms of inorganic mercury: dissolved Hg and sulfide, nanoparticulate HgS, and microparticulate HgS. The bacteria cultures exposed to HgS nanoparticles methylated mercury at a rate slower than cultures exposed to dissolved forms of mercury. However, net methylmercury production in cultures exposed to nanoparticles was 6 times greater than in cultures treated with microscale particles, even when normalized to specific surface area. Furthermore, the methylation potential of HgS nanoparticles decreased with storage time of the nanoparticles in their original stock solution. In bacteria cultures amended with nano-HgS from a 16 h-old nanoparticle stock, 6–10% of total mercury was converted to methylmercury after one day. In contrast, 2–4% was methylated in cultures amended with nano-HgS that was aged for 3 days or 1 week. The methylation of mercury derived from nanoparticles (in contrast to the larger particles) would not be predicted by equilibrium speciation of mercury in the aqueous phase (<0.2 μm) and was possibly caused by the disordered structure of nanoparticles that facilitated release of chemically labile mercury species immediately adjacent to cell surfaces. Our results add new dimensions to the mechanistic understanding of mercury methylation potential by demonstrating that bioavailability is related to the geochemical intermediates of rate-limited mercury sulfide precipitation reactions. These findings could help explain observations that the “aging” of mercury in sediments reduces its methylation potential and provide a basis for assessing and remediating methylmercury hotspots in the environment.

Short TitleEnviron. Sci. Technol.