Syntrophic pathways for microbial mercury methylation

Ri Qing Yu, John R. Reinfelder, Mark E. Hines, Tamar Barkay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Exposure to dietary sources of methylmercury (MeHg) is the focus of public health concerns with environmental mercury (Hg) contamination. MeHg is formed in anoxic environments by anaerobic microorganisms. This process has been studied mostly with single-species culture incubations, although the relevance of such studies to Hg(II)-methylation in situ is limited because microbial activities in the environment are critically modulated by interactions among microbial functional groups. Here we describe experiments in which Hg(II)-methylation was examined within the context of various microbial syntrophies. We show enhanced Hg(II)-methylation under conditions that established syntrophy by interspecies hydrogen and acetate transfer. Relative to activity of monocultures, interactions of Hg(II) methylating sulfate-reducing bacteria with a methanogen stimulated potential Hg(II)-methylation rates 2-fold to 9-fold, and with Syntrophobacter sp. 1.7-fold to 1.8-fold; those of a Hg(II) methylating Syntrophobacter sp. with a methanogen increased Hg(II)-methylation 2-fold. Under sulfate-depleted conditions, higher Hg(II)-methylation rates in the syntrophic incubations corresponded to higher free energy yields (ΔG°′) than in the monocultures. Based on energetic considerations, we therefore propose that syntrophic microbial interactions are likely a major source of MeHg in sulfate- and iron-limited anoxic environments while in sulfate-replete environments, MeHg formation via sulfate reduction dominates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1826-1835
Number of pages10
JournalISME Journal
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jun 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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