Low-level methylmercury exposure causes human T-cells to undergo apoptosis: evidence of mitochondrial dysfunction

Environ Res. 1998 May;77(2):149-59. doi: 10.1006/enrs.1997.3816.


There is growing evidence that heavy metals, in general, and mercurial compounds, in particular, are immunotoxic to the human immune system. The major focus of our study is to demonstrate that methylmercuric chloride (MeHgCl) kills human lymphocytes by inducing apoptosis. T-cells exposed to 0.6-5 microM MeHgCl for 24 h were analyzed by flow cytometry. Methylmercury-treated cells exhibited increased Hoechst 33258 fluorescence while maintaining their ability to exclude the vital stain 7-aminoactinomycin. Furthermore, T-cells exposed to methylmercury exhibited changes in light scatter patterns that included decreased forward light scatter and increased side light scatter. The light scatter and fluorescent changes were consistent with morphological alterations displayed by cells during apoptosis. Cell death was further evaluated by assessing annexin V binding to the plasma membrane. Methylmercury-treated cells exhibited increased annexin V binding indicative of phosphatidylserine translocation to the outer leaflet of the plasma membrane. Using the fluorescent probe DiOC6(3), we noted that methylmercury exposure resulted in a decrease in mitochondrial transmembrane potential (Psim). Since a low Psim is associated with altered mitochondrial function, we also determined if exposure to methylmercury potentiated reactive oxygen species (ROS) generation. We noted that treated cells generated ROS, as evidenced by oxidation of hydroethidine and the generation of the fluorescent product, ethidium. Finally, we evaluated the effect of methylmercury on T-cell GSH content utilizing the fluorescent probe monochlorobimane; in the presence of MeHgCl, there is a marked loss in reduced cell thiols. The results of the study indicate that a key event in the induction of T-cell apoptosis by mercuric compounds is depletion in the thiol reserve which predisposes cells to ROS damage and at the same time activates death signaling pathways.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Bisbenzimidazole
  • Cell Size / drug effects
  • Chromatin / drug effects
  • Dactinomycin / analogs & derivatives
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Environmental Pollutants / administration & dosage
  • Environmental Pollutants / adverse effects
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Humans
  • Membrane Potentials / drug effects
  • Mercury / administration & dosage
  • Mercury / adverse effects
  • Methylmercury Compounds / administration & dosage
  • Methylmercury Compounds / adverse effects*
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / physiology
  • Organelles / drug effects
  • Pyrazoles / metabolism
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • T-Lymphocytes / cytology
  • T-Lymphocytes / drug effects*
  • T-Lymphocytes / ultrastructure


  • Chromatin
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • Pyrazoles
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Dactinomycin
  • 7-aminoactinomycin D
  • monochlorobimane
  • Mercury
  • Bisbenzimidazole