Project Details


The accumulation of mercury (Hg) in seafood is a public health concern. The presence of Hg in seafood depends to a large degree on the air-sea exchange of Hg, with atmospheric deposition leading to accumulation of Hg in the ocean. The pathways to seafood start with the uptake of Hg by phytoplankton from seawater where is has always been assumed to accumulate to be eaten by grazers and passed on to larger organisms. This project challenges this assumption with preliminary data that suggests certain phytoplankton species can transform Hg to volatile forms (mercury vapor & dimethylmercury) that are lost to the atmosphere, a processes that removes Hg from the ocean rather than simply concentrating it into the ecosystem and seafood. This process, which has not been studied before, could dramatically alter our view of the Hg cycle in the ocean. The researchers funded by this project will look for the specific phytoplankton species that are capable of volatilizing Hg and quantify the rates at which they do so. They will also examine the suspected role of associated sulfur and selenium compounds in the process, as well as quantifying the changes in the Hg isotopic values for potential use as chemical tracers of the source of Hg in the ecosystem and food supply. These results should allow oceanographers to better quantify and refine our knowledge of Hg cycling in the ocean. The project will support participation of graduate students, a postdoctoral scientist, and incorporation of new information directly into courses taught by the researchers. Funding will also support continuing activities by the participants in activities that disseminate information on mercury and its effect on public and environmental health. Biogeochemical cycling of mercury (Hg) in the ocean may be more complex than previously assumed. New evidence has challenged the idea that methylmercury (MeHg) merely accumulates in phytoplankton and undergoes little to no transformation before being passed into the food web. This project aims to more fully elucidate the mechanisms behind the intracellular transformation of MeHg to volatile Hg and dimethylmercury (Me2Hg) that can be lost to the atmosphere, as well as to evaluate the range of algal taxa that can perform this transformation using directed culture work. Additionally, the PIs will investigate evidence that thiols, organic selenium (Se) compounds, and sulfides are required to facilitate these reactions within the phytoplankton, and specific pathways will be investigated and quantified through this research. Stable Hg isotopic data has been used to track Hg sources and pathways in marine systems and its fractionation during these MeHg transformations will also be quantified for future field study of marine Hg. The investigators hypothesize that coccolithophorids and other haptophytes capable of these intracellular reactions may account for a significant portion of the production of volatile Hg in the ocean. If this turns out to be the case, understanding and quantifying these volatilization processes may significantly alter our current understanding of the overall biogeochemical cycling of Hg in the ocean.
Effective start/end date9/1/168/31/19


  • National Science Foundation (National Science Foundation (NSF))


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