Environ. Sci. Technol. 56 (18) 13119-13130 [2022-09-20; online 2022-09-07]
Neurotoxic methylmercury (MeHg) is formed by microbial methylation of inorganic divalent Hg (HgII) and constitutes severe environmental and human health risks. The methylation is enabled by hgcA and hgcB genes, but it is not known if the associated molecular-level processes are rate-limiting or enable accurate prediction of MeHg formation in nature. In this study, we investigated the relationships between hgc genes and MeHg across redox-stratified water columns in the brackish Baltic Sea. We showed, for the first time, that hgc transcript abundance and the concentration of dissolved HgII-sulfide species were strong predictors of both the HgII methylation rate and MeHg concentration, implying their roles as principal joint drivers of MeHg formation in these systems. Additionally, we characterized the metabolic capacities of hgc+ microorganisms by reconstructing their genomes from metagenomes (i.e., hgc+ MAGs), which highlighted the versatility of putative HgII methylators in the water column of the Baltic Sea. In establishing relationships between hgc transcripts and the HgII methylation rate, we advance the fundamental understanding of mechanistic principles governing MeHg formation in nature and enable refined predictions of MeHg levels in coastal seas in response to the accelerating spread of oxygen-deficient zones.