Controlling bioaccumulation of toxic monomethylmercury (MMHg) in aquatic food chains requires differentiation between biotic and abiotic pathways that lead to its production and degradation. Recent mercury (Hg) stable isotope measurements of natural samples suggest that Hg isotope ratios can be a powerful proxy for tracing dominant Hg transforming pathways in aquatic ecosystems. Specifically, it has been shown that photo-degradation of MMHg causes both mass dependent (MDF) and mass independent fractionation (MIF) of Hg isotopes. Because the extent of MDF and MIF observed in natural samples (e.g., fish, soil and sediments) can potentially be used to determine the relative importance of pathways leading to MMHg accumulation, it is important to determine the potential role of microbial pathways in contributing to the fractionation, especially MIF, observed in these samples. This study reports the extent of fractionation of Hg stable isotopes during degradation of MMHg to volatile elemental Hg and methane via the microbial Hg resistance (mer) pathway in Escherichia coli carrying a mercury resistance (mer) genetic system on a multi-copy plasmid. During experimental microbial degradation of MMHg, MMHg remaining in reactors became progressively heavier (increasing δ202Hg) with time and underwent mass dependent Rayleigh fractionation with a fractionation factor α202/198 = 1.0004 ± 0.0002 (2SD). However, MIF was not observed in any of the microbial MMHg degradation experiments indicating that the isotopic signature left by mer mediated MMHg degradation is significantly different from fractionation observed during DOC mediated photo-degradation of MMHg. Additionally, a clear suppression of Hg isotope fractionation, both during reduction of Hg(II) and degradation of MMHg, was observed when the cell densities increased, possibly due to a reduction in substrate bioavailability. We propose a multi-step framework for understanding the extent of fractionation seen in our MMHg degradation experiments and, based on estimates of the rates of the various steps involved in this mer mediated pathway, suggest which steps in the process could contribute towards the observed extent of fractionation. This framework suggests that at lower cell densities catalysis by MerB was the rate limiting step while at higher cell densities transport into the cell, which does not cause fractionation, became the rate limiting step. In addition to presenting evidence for absence of MIF during mer mediated Hg transformations, based on the nature of Hg compounds and microbe-Hg interactions, we suggest that the nuclear spin dependent MIF (i.e., the magnetic isotope effect) is also unlikely to occur during other non mer mediated 'dark' microbial Hg transformations (e.g., formation of MMHg and oxidative degradation of MMHg). Because of the important implications of the absence of MIF during biological processes on Hg isotope systematics, we discuss theoretical considerations and experimental strategies that could be used to confirm this suggestion.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Geochemistry and Petrology