Sci Rep 9 (1) 518 [2019-01-24; online 2019-01-24]
The formation of the potent neurotoxic methylmercury (MeHg) is a microbially mediated process that has raised much concern because MeHg poses threats to wildlife and human health. Since boreal forest soils can be a source of MeHg in aquatic networks, it is crucial to understand the biogeochemical processes involved in the formation of this pollutant. High-throughput sequencing of 16S rRNA and the mercury methyltransferase, hgcA, combined with geochemical characterisation of soils, were used to determine the microbial populations contributing to MeHg formation in forest soils across Sweden. The hgcA sequences obtained were distributed among diverse clades, including Proteobacteria, Firmicutes, and Methanomicrobia, with Deltaproteobacteria, particularly Geobacteraceae, dominating the libraries across all soils examined. Our results also suggest that MeHg formation is also linked to the composition of non-mercury methylating bacterial communities, likely providing growth substrate (e.g. acetate) for the hgcA-carrying microorganisms responsible for the actual methylation process. While previous research focused on mercury methylating microbial communities of wetlands, this study provides some first insights into the diversity of mercury methylating microorganisms in boreal forest soils.