Bravo AG, Zopfi J, Buck M, Xu J, Bertilsson S, Schaefer JK, Poté J, Cosio C
ISME J 12 (3) 802-812 [2018-03-00; online 2018-01-10]
Microbial mercury (Hg) methylation in sediments can result in bioaccumulation of the neurotoxin methylmercury (MMHg) in aquatic food webs. Recently, the discovery of the gene hgcA, required for Hg methylation, revealed that the diversity of Hg methylators is much broader than previously thought. However, little is known about the identity of Hg-methylating microbial organisms and the environmental factors controlling their activity and distribution in lakes. Here, we combined high-throughput sequencing of 16S rRNA and hgcA genes with the chemical characterization of sediments impacted by a waste water treatment plant that releases significant amounts of organic matter and iron. Our results highlight that the ferruginous geochemical conditions prevailing at 1-2 cm depth are conducive to MMHg formation and that the Hg-methylating guild is composed of iron and sulfur-transforming bacteria, syntrophs, and methanogens. Deltaproteobacteria, notably Geobacteraceae, dominated the hgcA carrying communities, while sulfate reducers constituted only a minor component, despite being considered the main Hg methylators in many anoxic aquatic environments. Because iron is widely applied in waste water treatment, the importance of Geobacteraceae for Hg methylation and the complexity of Hg-methylating communities reported here are likely to occur worldwide in sediments impacted by waste water treatment plant discharges and in iron-rich sediments in general.