Microbes in mercury-enriched geothermal springs in western North America

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Because geothermal environments contain mercury (Hg) from natural sources, microorganisms that evolved in these systems have likely adapted to this element. Knowledge of the interactions between microorganisms and Hg in geothermal systems may assist in understanding the long-term evolution of microbial adaptation to Hg with relevance to other environments where Hg is introduced from anthropogenic sources. A number of microbiological studies with supporting geochemistry have been conducted in geothermal systems across western North America. Approximately 1 in 5 study sites include measurements of Hg. Of all prokaryotic taxa reported across sites with microbiological and accompanying physicochemical data, 42% have been detected at sites in which Hg was measured. Genes specifying Hg reduction and detoxification by microorganisms were detected in a number of hot springs across the region. Archaeal-like sequences, representing two crenarchaeal orders and one order each of the Euryarchaeota and Thaumarchaeota, dominated in metagenomes' MerA (the mercuric reductase protein) inventories, while bacterial homologs were mostly found in one deeply sequenced metagenome. MerA homologs were more frequently found in metagenomes of microbial communities in acidic springs than in circumneutral or high pH geothermal systems, possibly reflecting higher bioavailability of Hg under acidic conditions. MerA homologs were found in hot springs prokaryotic isolates affiliated with Bacteria and Archaea taxa. Acidic sites with high Hg concentrations contain more of Archaea than Bacteria taxa, while the reverse appears to be the case in circumneutral and high pH sites with high Hg concentrations. However, MerA was detected in only a small fraction of the Archaea and Bacteria taxa inhabiting sites containing Hg. Nevertheless, the presence of MerA homologs and their distribution patterns in systems, in which Hg has yet to be measured, demonstrates the potential for detoxification by Hg reduction in these geothermal systems, particularly the low pH springs that are dominated by Archaea.




Geesey GG, Barkay T, King S “Microbes in mercury-enriched geothermal springs in western North America,” Sci Total Environ, 2016 Nov 1; 569–570:321–331.
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