Relative contributions of mercury bioavailability and microbial growth rate on net methylmercury production by anaerobic mixed cultures†
Monomethylmercury (MeHg) is produced in many aquatic environments by anaerobic microorganisms that take up and methylate inorganic forms of Hg(II). Net methylation of Hg(II) appears to be correlated with factors that affect the activity of the anaerobic microbial community and factors that increase the bioavailability of Hg(II) to these organisms. However, the relative importance of one versus the other is difficult to elucidate even though this information can greatly assist remediation efforts and risk assessments. Here, we investigated the effects of Hg speciation (dissolved Hg and nanoparticulate HgS) and microbial activity on the net production of MeHg using two mixed microbial cultures that were enriched from marine sediments under sulfate reducing conditions. The cultures were amended with dissolved Hg (added as a dissolved nitrate salt) and nanoparticulate HgS, and grown under different carbon substrate concentrations. The results indicated that net mercury methylation was the highest for cultures incubated in the greatest carbon substrate concentration (60 mM) compared to incubations with less carbon (0.6 and 6 mM), regardless of the form of mercury amended. Net MeHg production in cultures exposed to HgS nanoparticles was significantly slower than in cultures exposed to dissolved Hg; however, the difference diminished with slower growing cultures with low carbon addition (0.6 mM). The net Hg methylation rate was found to correlate with sulfate reduction rate in cultures exposed to dissolved Hg, while methylation rate was roughly constant for cultures exposed to nanoparticulate HgS. These results indicated a potential threshold of microbial productivity: below this point net MeHg production was limited by microbial activity, regardless of Hg bioavailability. Above this threshold of productivity, Hg speciation became a contributing factor towards net MeHg production.