Methylation of Mercury in Earthworms and the Effect of Mercury on the Associated Bacterial Communities

Rieder, Stephan Raphael; Brunner, Ivano; Daniel, Otto; Liu, Bian; Frey, Beat

Methylmercury compounds are very toxic for most organisms. Here, we investigated the potential of earthworms to methylate inorganic-Hg. We hypothesized that the anaerobic and nutrient-rich conditions in the digestive tracts of earthworm's promote the methylation of Hg through the action of their gut bacteria. Earthworms were either grown in sterile soils treated with an inorganic (HgCl2) or organic (CH3HgCl) Hg source, or were left untreated. After 30 days of incubation, the total-Hg and methyl-Hg concentrations in the soils, earthworms, and their casts were analyzed. The impact of Hg on the bacterial community compositions in earthworms was also studied. Tissue concentrations of methyl-Hg in earthworms grown in soils treated with inorganic-Hg were about six times higher than in earthworms grown in soils without Hg. Concentrations of methyl-Hg in the soils and earthworm casts remained at significantly lower levels suggesting that Hg was mainly methylated in the earthworms. Bacterial communities in earthworms were mostly affected by methyl-Hg treatment. Terminal-restriction fragments (T-RFs) affiliated to Firmicutes were sensitive to inorganic and methyl-Hg, whereas T-RFs related to Betaproteobacteria were tolerant to the Hg treatments. Sulphate-reducing bacteria were detected in earthworms but not in soils.


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February 20, 2017