Some like it cold: microbial transformations of mercury in polar regions
The contamination of polar regions with mercury that is transported from lower latitudes as inorganic mercury has resulted in the accumulation of methylmercury (MeHg) in food chains, risking the health of humans and wildlife. While production of MeHg has been documented in polar marine and terrestrial environments, little is known about the responsible transformations and transport pathways and the processes that control them. We posit that as in temperate environments, microbial transformations play a key role in mercury geochemical cycling in polar regions by: (1) methylating mercury by one of four proposed pathways, some not previously described; (2) degrading MeHg by activities of mercury resistant and other bacteria; and (3) carrying out redox transformations that control the supply of the mercuric ion, the substrate of methylation reactions. Recent analyses have identified a high potential for mercury-resistant microbes that express the enzyme mercuric reductase to affect the production of gaseous elemental mercury when and where daylight is limited. The integration of microbially mediated processes in the paradigms that describe mercury geochemical cycling is therefore of high priority especially in light of concerns regarding the effect of global warming and permafrost thawing on input of MeHg to polar regions.
Keywords: Microbiology; mercury biogeochemistry; redox transformations; polar regions; methylation
(Published: 28 December 2011)
Citation: Polar Research 2011, 30, 15469, DOI: 10.3402/polar.v30i0.15469
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Authors retain copyright of their work, with first publication rights granted to the Norwegian Polar Institute.