Production of methylmercury by methanogens in mercury contaminated estuarine sediments

FEMS Microbiol Lett. 2020 Dec 22;367(23):fnaa196. doi: 10.1093/femsle/fnaa196.


Anaerobic bacteria are known to produce neurotoxic methylmercury [MeHg] when elemental mercury [Hg(0)] is provided as the sole mercury source. In this study, we examined the formation of MeHg in anaerobic incubations of sediment collected from the San Jacinto River estuary (Texas, USA) amended with aqueous Hg(0) to investigate the microbial communities involved in the conversion of Hg(0) to MeHg. The results show that the addition of the methanogen inhibitor 2-bromoethanesulfonate (BES) significantly decreased MeHg production. The mercury methylation gene, hgcA, was detected in these sediments using archaeal specific primers, and 16S rRNA sequencing showed that a member of the Methanosarcinaceae family of methanogens was active. These results suggest that methanogenic archaea play an underappreciated role in the production of MeHg in estuarine sediments contaminated with Hg(0).

Keywords: anaerobic microorganisms; mercury transformation; sediment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Alkanesulfonic Acids / pharmacology
  • Anaerobiosis
  • Archaea / genetics
  • Archaea / metabolism
  • Estuaries
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry
  • Geologic Sediments / microbiology*
  • Mercury / metabolism
  • Methanosarcinaceae / genetics
  • Methanosarcinaceae / isolation & purification
  • Methanosarcinaceae / metabolism*
  • Methylmercury Compounds / metabolism*
  • Microbiota*
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / metabolism*


  • Alkanesulfonic Acids
  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • 2-bromoethanesulfonic acid
  • Mercury