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Mechanistic principles of mercury uptake by methylating bacteria - redefining the function of thiol compounds

Research project The global spread of mercury (Hg) is a major threat to ecosystem viability and human health, mainly due to the bacterially mediated formation of monomethylmercury (MeHg). In this project we formulate fundamental mechanistic rules on how Hg is taken up by methylating bacteria.

Head of project

Project overview

Project period:

2018-01-01 2021-12-31

Participating departments and units at Umeå University

Department of Chemistry

Research area

Chemical sciences, Environmental chemistry, Marine science

External funding

Swedish Research Council

Project description

The global spread of mercury (Hg) is a major threat to ecosystem viability and human health, mainly due to the bacterially mediated formation of monomethylmercury (MeHg). This process causes transfer of Hg from the abiotic to the biotic environmental compartments and ultimately leads to exposure of Hg to wildlife and humans.

Due to our limited mechanistic understanding of Hg uptake in methylating bacteria, scientists have so far failed to parameterize models for quantitative predications of MeHg formation rates and concentrations in ecosystems. This project aims to formulate fundamental mechanistic rules on how Hg is taken up by methylating bacteria.

We use novel mass and X-ray spectroscopy methods and experimental approaches to reveal structural, thermodynamic and kinetic principles for molecular interactions of Hg with thiol compounds (synthesized by bacteria) in solution and at bacterial surfaces. We also identify by which molecular mechanisms such thiol compounds control Hg uptake. Three factors make the project unique: (1) determination of dissolved thiol compounds and their Hg complexes extra- and intracellular, (2) detailed characterization of the chemical structure, thermodynamics and kinetics of Hg interactions with cell membrane thiol groups, (3) coupling the function of dissolved and cell membrane thiols to cellular uptake of Hg. We expect to close the missing link to understand transfer of Hg from the abiotic to the biotic environmental compartments.

External funding