Doe Science news source

The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2017-05-31 14:05:55
  • Article ID: 675648

Newly Identified Microbial Process Could Reduce Toxic Methylmercury Levels

  • Credit: Jeremy Semrau, University of Michigan

    An ORNL-led team along with University of Michigan and Iowa State University investigated many different methanotrophs to single out how and which ones take up and break down methylmercury.

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. May 31, 2017 – A team led by the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has identified a novel microbial process that can break down toxic methylmercury in the environment, a fundamental scientific discovery that could potentially reduce mercury toxicity levels and support health and risk assessments.

Methylmercury is a neurotoxin that forms in nature when mercury interacts with certain microbes living in soil and waterways. It accumulates at varying levels in all fish—particularly large predatory fish such as tuna and swordfish—and, when consumed in large quantities, can potentially cause neurological damage and developmental disorders, especially in children.

A previous ORNL-led study, published in Science in 2013, unlocked the genetic code that led scientists to accurately identify microbes responsible for methylmercury production in the environment. Following this finding, the ORNL team has now discovered which bacteria perform the reverse process, called demethylation. Details are published in Science Advances.

“Much attention has focused on mercury methylation or how methylmercury forms, but few studies to date have examined microbial demethylation, or the breakdown of methylmercury at environmentally relevant conditions,” said Baohua Gu, co-author and a team lead in ORNL’s Mercury Science Focus Area.

Bacteria called methanotrophs feed off methane gas and can either take up or break down methylmercury, or both. Methanotrophs are widespread in nature and exist near methane and air interfaces, and both methane and methylmercury are usually formed in similar anoxic, or oxygen-deficient, environments.

To single out how and which methanotrophs perform demethylation, the ORNL-led team—along with methanotroph experts from the University of Michigan and Iowa State University—investigated the behavior of many different methanotrophs and used sophisticated mass spectrometry to analyze methylmercury uptake and decomposition by these bacteria. They discovered that methanotrophs such as Methlyosinus trichosporium OB3b can take up and break down methylmercury, while others such as Methylococcus capsulatus Bath only take up methylmercury.

In either case, the bacteria’s interactions can lower mercury toxicity levels in water.

“If proven environmentally significant through future studies, our discovery of methanotrophs’ behavior could be a new biological pathway for degrading methylmercury in nature,” Gu said. This approach differs greatly from a previously recognized enzymatic pathway, which is only effective at very high mercury concentrations. 

The methanotrophs identified in this study “open new opportunities to explore how nature detoxifies methylmercury and could improve our prediction of mercury toxicity levels and support better risk assessments and remediation efforts at mercury contamination sites,” Gu added.

Co-authors of the paper titled, “Methylmercury uptake and degradation by methanotrophs,” included ORNL’s Xia Lu, Linduo Zhao and Baohua Gu; Wenyu Gu, Muhammad Farhan Ul Haque and Jeremy Semrau of the University of Michigan; and Alan DiSpirito of Iowa State University.

This research was funded by DOE’s Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, as part of the Mercury Science Focus Area at ORNL (http://www.esd.ornl.gov/programs/rsfa/). ORNL is recognized as a leader for systematic studies of mercury in the environment.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit http://science.energy.gov/.

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2-D Material's Traits Could Send Electronics R&D Spinning in New Directions

Researchers created an atomically thin material at Berkeley Lab and used X-rays to measure its exotic and durable properties that make it a promising candidate for a budding branch of electronics known as "spintronics."

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Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory discovered that they could functionalize magnetic materials through a thoroughly unlikely method, by adding amounts of the virtually non-magnetic element scandium to a gadolinium-germanium alloy. It was so unlikely they called it a "counterintuitive experimental finding" in their published work on the research.

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The U.S. could slash its energy use by the equivalent of what is currently used by 12 to 15 million Americans if commercial buildings fully used energy-efficiency controls nationwide.

How a Single Chemical Bond Balances Cells Between Life and Death

With SLAC's X-ray laser and synchrotron, scientists measured exactly how much energy goes into keeping a crucial chemical bond from triggering a cell's death spiral.

New Efficient, Low-Temperature Catalyst for Converting Water and CO to Hydrogen Gas and CO2

Scientists have developed a new low-temperature catalyst for producing high-purity hydrogen gas while simultaneously using up carbon monoxide (CO). The discovery could improve the performance of fuel cells that run on hydrogen fuel but can be poisoned by CO.

Study Sheds Light on How Bacterial Organelles Assemble

Scientists at Berkeley Lab and Michigan State University are providing the clearest view yet of an intact bacterial microcompartment, revealing at atomic-level resolution the structure and assembly of the organelle's protein shell. This work can help provide important information for research in bioenergy, pathogenesis, and biotechnology.

A Single Electron's Tiny Leap Sets Off 'Molecular Sunscreen' Response

In experiments at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, scientists were able to see the first step of a process that protects a DNA building block called thymine from sun damage: When it's hit with ultraviolet light, a single electron jumps into a slightly higher orbit around the nucleus of a single oxygen atom.

Researchers Find New Mechanism for Genome Regulation

The same mechanisms that separate mixtures of oil and water may also help the organization of an unusual part of our DNA called heterochromatin, according to a new study by Berkeley Lab researchers. They found that liquid-liquid phase separation helps heterochromatin organize large parts of the genome into specific regions of the nucleus. The work addresses a long-standing question about how DNA functions are organized in space and time, including how genes are silenced or expressed.

The Rise of Giant Viruses

Research reveals that giant viruses acquire genes piecemeal from others, with implications for bioenergy production and environmental cleanup.


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The Electrochemical Society and Toyota North America Announce 2017-2018 Fellowship Winners for Projects in Green Energy Technology

The ECS Toyota Young Investigator Fellowship Selection Committee has chosen three winners who will receive $50,000 fellowship awards each for projects in green energy technology. The awardees are Dr. Ahmet Kusoglu, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Professor Julie Renner, Case Western Reserve University; and Professor Shuhui Sun, Institut National de la Rechersche Scientifique (INRS).

Chicago Quantum Exchange to Create Technologically Transformative Ecosystem

The University of Chicago is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to launch an intellectual hub for advancing academic, industrial and governmental efforts in the science and engineering of quantum information.

Department of Energy Awards Six Research Contracts Totaling $258 Million to Accelerate U.S. Supercomputing Technology

Today U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced that six leading U.S. technology companies will receive funding from the Department of Energy's Exascale Computing Project (ECP) as part of its new PathForward program, accelerating the research necessary to deploy the nation's first exascale supercomputers.

Cynthia Jenks Named Director of Argonne's Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division

Argonne has named Cynthia Jenks the next director of the laboratory's Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division. Jenks currently serves as the assistant director for scientific planning and the director of the Chemical and Biological Sciences Division at Ames Laboratory.

Argonne-Developed Technology for Producing Graphene Wins TechConnect National Innovation Award

A method that significantly cuts the time and cost needed to grow graphene has won a 2017 TechConnect National Innovation Award. This is the second year in a row that a team at Argonne's Center for Nanoscale Materials has received this award.

Honeywell UOP and Argonne Seek Research Collaborations in Catalysis Under Technologist in Residence Program

Researchers at Argonne are collaborating with Honeywell UOP scientists to explore innovative energy and chemicals production.

Follow the Fantastic Voyage of the ICARUS Neutrino Detector

The ICARUS neutrino detector, born at Gran Sasso National Lab in Italy and refurbished at CERN, will make its way across the sea to Fermilab this summer. Follow along using an interactive map online.

JSA Awards Graduate Fellowships for Research at Jefferson Lab

Jefferson Sciences Associates announced today the award of eight JSA/Jefferson Lab graduate fellowships. The doctoral students will use the fellowships to support their advanced studies at their universities and conduct research at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab) - a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear physics laboratory managed and operated by JSA, a joint venture between SURA and PAE Applied Technologies.

Muon Magnet's Moment Has Arrived

On May 31, the 50-foot-wide superconducting electromagnet at the center of the Muon g-2 experiment saw its first beam of muon particles from Fermilab's accelerators, kicking off a three-year effort to measure just what happens to those particles when placed in a stunningly precise magnetic field. The answer could rewrite scientists' picture of the universe and how it works.

Seven Small Businesses to Collaborate with Argonne to Solve Technical Challenges

Seven small businesses have been selected to collaborate with researchers at Argonne to address technical challenges as part of DOE's Small Business Vouchers Program.


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New Class of Porous Materials Better Separates Carbon Dioxide from Other Gases

Enhanced stability in the presence of water could help reduce smokestack emissions of greenhouse gases.

Manipulating Earth-Abundant Materials to Harness the Sun's Energy

New material based on common iron ore can help turn intermittent sunlight and water into long-lasting fuel.

Oxygen: The Jekyll and Hyde of Biofuels

Scientists are devising ways to protect plants, biofuels and, ultimately, the atmosphere itself from damage caused by an element that sustains life on earth.

The Rise of Giant Viruses

Research reveals that giant viruses acquire genes piecemeal from others, with implications for bioenergy production and environmental cleanup.

Grasses: The Secrets Behind Their Success

Researchers find a grass gene affecting how plants manage water and carbon dioxide that could be useful to growing biofuel crops on marginal land.

New Perspectives Into Arctic Cloud Phases

Teamwork provides insight into complicated cloud processes that are important to potential environmental changes in the Arctic.

Mountaintop Plants and Soils to Become Out of Sync

Plants and soil microbes may be altered by climate warming at different rates and in different ways, meaning vital nutrient patterns could be misaligned.

If a Tree Falls in the Amazon

For the first time, scientists pinpointed how often storms topple trees, helping to predict how changes in Amazonia affect the world.

Turning Waste into Fuels, Microbial Style

A newly discovered metabolic process linking different bacteria in a community could enhance bioenergy production.

Department of Energy Awards Six Research Contracts Totaling $258 Million to Accelerate U.S. Supercomputing Technology

Today U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced that six leading U.S. technology companies will receive funding from the Department of Energy's Exascale Computing Project (ECP) as part of its new PathForward program, accelerating the research necessary to deploy the nation's first exascale supercomputers.


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