U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

New Roles for Microbes in the Mercury/Methyl Mercury Cycle
Published: November 22, 2010
Posted: January 06, 2011

Mercury is a global pollutant released into the atmosphere during coal burning and into freshwater systems froma agricultural runoff and industrial discharge. Once in freshwater systems, microorganisms, known as d-proteobacteria, create methylmercury (MeHg), a highly toxic form of mercury that accumulates in biological systems. High concentrations of MeHg are detected in biota in the East Fork Poplar Creek in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, even though mercury producing weapons production activities at the Y-12 National Security complex were discontinued many years ago. Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists recently characterized the impacts of mercury and uranium contamination on the diversity and structure of bacterial populations from the East Fork Poplar Creek and other nearby streams. The team sampled 6 different streams at select times over a year and demonstrated that specific microbial groupings (Verrucomicrobia and e-proteobacteria groupings) were most closely correlated with high MeHg levels, even though no bacteria in these groupings are known to have any role in MeHg generation. This is the first study to indicate an influence of MeHg on an existing microbial community, and suggests that bacteria within the Verrucomicrobia and the e-proteobacteria groupings have an important, but yet to be determined role in the overall Hg/MeHg cycle.

Reference: Vishnivetskaya T. A., J.J. Mosher, A. V. Palumbo, Z. K. Yang, M. Podar, S. D. Brown, S.C. Brooks, B. Gu, G. R. Southworth, M. M. Drake, C. C. Brandt, and D. A. Elias. 2010. "Mercury and Other Heavy Metals Influence Bacterial Community Structure in Contaminated Tennessee Streams," Applied and Environmental Microbiology, published online ahead of print on 5 November 2010, doi:10.1128/AEM.01715-10.

Contact: Paul E. Bayer, SC-23.1, (301) 903-5324
Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Subsurface Biogeochemical Research
  • Research Area: Microbes and Communities

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


BER supports basic research and scientific user facilities to advance DOE missions in energy and environment. More about BER

Recent Highlights

May 10, 2019
Quantifying Decision Uncertainty in Water Management via a Coupled Agent-Based Model
Considering risk perception can improve the representation of human decision-making processes in age [more...]

May 09, 2019
Projecting Global Urban Area Growth Through 2100 Based on Historical Time Series Data and Future Scenarios
Study provides country-specific urban area growth models and the first dataset on country-level urba [more...]

May 05, 2019
Calibrating Building Energy Demand Models to Refine Long-Term Energy Planning
A new, flexible calibration approach improved model accuracy in capturing year-to-year changes in bu [more...]

May 03, 2019
Calibration and Uncertainty Analysis of Demeter for Better Downscaling of Global Land Use and Land Cover Projections
Researchers improved the Demeter model’s performance by calibrating key parameters and establi [more...]

Apr 22, 2019
Representation of U.S. Warm Temperature Extremes in Global Climate Model Ensembles
Representation of warm temperature events varies considerably among global climate models, which has [more...]

List all highlights (possible long download time)