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Light-independent phytoplankton degradation and detoxification of methylmercury in water

Publication Type
Journal Name
Nature Water
Publication Date
Page Numbers
705 to 715

Phytoplankton serves as a key entry point for the trophic transfer and bioaccumulation of the neurotoxin methylmercury (MeHg) in aquatic food webs. However, it is unclear whether and how phytoplankton itself may degrade and metabolize MeHg in the dark. Here, using several strains of the freshwater alga Chlorella vulgaris, the marine diatom Chaetoceros gracilis and two cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae), we report a light-independent pathway of MeHg degradation in water by phytoplankton, rather than its associated bacteria. About 36–85% of MeHg could be degraded intracellularly to inorganic Hg(II) and/or Hg(0) via dark reactions. Endogenic reactive oxygen species, particularly singlet oxygen, were identified as the main driver of MeHg demethylation. Given the increasing incidence of algal blooms in lakes and marine systems globally, these findings underscore the potential roles of phytoplankton demethylation and detoxification of MeHg in aquatic ecosystems and call for improved modelling and assessment of MeHg bioaccumulation and environmental risks.