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Assessing Microbial Communities Related to Mercury Transformations in Contaminated Streambank Soils

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Water, Air, and Soil Pollution
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In nature, the bioaccumulative potent neurotoxin methylmercury (MeHg) is produced from inorganic mercury (Hg) predominantly by anaerobic microorganisms. Hg-contaminated soils are a potential source of MeHg due to microbial activity. We examine streambank soils collected from the contaminated East Fork Poplar Creek (EFPC) in Tennessee, USA, where seasonal variations in MeHg levels have been observed throughout the year, suggesting active microbial Hg methylation. In this study, we characterized the microbial community in contaminated bank soil samples collected from two locations over a period of one year and compared the results to soil samples from an uncontaminated reference site with similar geochemistry (n = 12). Microbial community composition and diversity were assessed by 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing. Furthermore, to isolate potential methylators from soils, enrichment cultures were prepared using selective media. A set of three clade-specific primers targeting the gene hgcA were used to detect Hg methylators among the δ-Proteobacteria in EFPC bank soils across all seasons. Two families among the δ-Proteobacteria that have been previously associated with Hg methylation, Geobacteraceae and Syntrophobacteraceae, were found to be predominant with relative abundances of 0.13% and 4.0%, respectively. However, in soil enrichment cultures, Firmicutes were predominant among families associated with Hg methylation. Specifically, Clostridiaceae and Peptococcaceae and their genera Clostridium and Desulfosporosinus were among the ten most abundant genera with relative abundances of 2.6% and 1.7%, respectively. These results offer insights into the role of microbial communities on Hg transformation processes in contaminated bank soils in EFPC. Identifying the biogeochemical drivers of MeHg production is critical for future remediation efforts.