Bacterial transformations of and resistances to heavy metals

Basic Life Sci. 1984;28:23-46. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4684-4715-6_3.


Bacteria carry out chemical transformations of heavy metals. These transformations (including oxidation, reduction, methylation, and demethylation) are sometimes byproducts of normal metabolism and confer no known advantage upon the organism responsible. Sometimes, however, the transformations constitute a mechanism of resistance. Many species of bacteria have genes that control resistances to specific toxic heavy metals. These resistances often are determined by extrachromosomal DNA molecules (plasmids). The same mechanisms of resistance occur in bacteria from soil, water, industrial waste, and clinical sources. The mechanism of mercury and organomercurial resistance is the enzymatic detoxification of the mercurials into volatile species (methane, ethane, metallic HgO) which are rapidly lost from the environment. Cadmium and arsenate resistances are due to reduced net accumulation of these toxic materials. Efficient efflux pumps cause the rapid excretion of Cd2+ and AsO4(3-). The mechanisms of arsenite and of antimony resistance, usually found associated with arsenate resistance, are not known. Silver resistance is due to lowered affinity of the cells for Ag+, which can be complexed with extracellular halides, thiols, or organic compounds. Sensitivity is due to binding of Ag+ more effectively to cells than to Cl-.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antimony / metabolism
  • Arsenic / metabolism
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Cadmium / metabolism
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial*
  • Mercury / metabolism
  • Metals / metabolism*
  • Methylation
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Plasmids
  • Silver / metabolism
  • Zinc / metabolism


  • Metals
  • Cadmium
  • Silver
  • Antimony
  • Mercury
  • Zinc
  • Arsenic