Mercury (Hg) is a widely distributed, toxic heavy metal with no known cellular role. Mercury toxicity has been linked to the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), but Hg does not directly perform redox chemistry with oxygen. How exposure to the ionic form, Hg(II), generates ROS is unknown. Exposure of Thermus thermophilus to Hg(II) triggered ROS accumulation and increased transcription and activity of superoxide dismutase (Sod) and pseudocatalase (Pcat); however, Hg(II) inactivated Sod and Pcat. Strains lacking Sod or Pcat had increased oxidized bacillithiol (BSH) levels and were more sensitive to Hg(II) than the wild type. The ΔbshA Δsod and ΔbshA Δpcat double mutant strains were as sensitive to Hg(II) as the ΔbshA strain that lacks bacillithiol, suggesting that the increased sensitivity to Hg(II) in the Δsod and Δpcat mutant strains is due to a decrease of reduced BSH. Treatment of T. thermophilus with Hg(II) decreased aconitase activity and increased the intracellular concentration of free Fe, and these phenotypes were exacerbated in Δsod and Δpcat mutant strains. Treatment with Hg(II) also increased DNA damage. We conclude that sequestration of the redox buffering thiol BSH by Hg(II), in conjunction with direct inactivation of ROS-scavenging enzymes, impairs the ability of T. thermophilus to effectively metabolize ROS generated as a normal consequence of growth in aerobic environments. IMPORTANCE Thermus thermophilus is a deep-branching thermophilic aerobe. It is a member of the Deinococcus-Thermus phylum that, together with the Aquificae, constitute the earliest branching aerobic bacterial lineages; therefore, this organism serves as a model for early diverged bacteria (R. K. Hartmann, J. Wolters, B. Kröger, S. Schultze, et al., Syst Appl Microbiol 11:243-249, 1989, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0723-2020(89)80020-7) whose natural heated habitat may contain mercury of geological origins (G. G. Geesey, T. Barkay, and S. King, Sci Total Environ 569-570:321-331, 2016, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.06.080). T. thermophilus likely arose shortly after the oxidation of the biosphere 2.4 billion years ago. Studying T. thermophilus physiology provides clues about the origin and evolution of mechanisms for mercury and oxidative stress responses, the latter being critical for the survival and function of all extant aerobes.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Reactive oxygen species
- Superoxide dismutase
- Thermus thermophilus