Demethylation of monomethylmercury in freshwater and estuarine sediments and in bacterial cultures was investigated with 14CH3HgI. Under anaerobiosis, results with inhibitors indicated partial involvement of both sulfate reducers and methanogens, the former dominating estuarine sediments, while both were active in freshwaters. Aerobes were the most significant demethylators in estuarine sediments, but were unimportant in freshwater sediments. Products of anaerobic demethylation were mainly 14CO2 as well as lesser amounts of 14CH4. Acetogenic activity resulted in fixation of some 14CO2 produced from 14CH3HgI into acetate. Aerobic demethylation in estuarine sediments produced only 14CH4, while aerobic demethylation in freshwater sediments produced small amounts of both 14CH4 and 14CO2. Two species of Desulfovibrio produced only traces of 14CH4 from 14CH3HgI, while a culture of a methylotrophic methanogen formed traces of 14CO2 and 14CH4 when grown on trimethylamine in the presence of the 14CH3HgI. These results indicate that both aerobes and anaerobes demethylate mercury in sediments, but that either group may dominate in a particular sediment type. Aerobic demethylation in the estuarine sediments appeared to proceed by the previously characterized organomercurial-lyase pathway, because methane was the sole product. However, aerobic demethylation in freshwater sediments as well as anaerobic demethylation in all sediments studied produced primarily carbon dioxide. This indicates the presence of an oxidative pathway, possibly one in which methylmercury serves as an analog of one-carbon substrates.
Additional publication details
Methylmercury decomposition in sediments and bacterial cultures: Involvement of methanogens and sulfate reducers in oxidative demethylation