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Vol. 24, No. 1, 2013; Pages: 33-46

Impact of mercury on denitrification and denitrifying microbial communities in nitrate enrichments of subsurface sediments

Yanping Wang, Heather A. Wiatrowski, Ria John, Chu-Ching Lin, Lily Y. Young, Lee J. Kerkhof, Nathan Yee, Tamar Barkay

Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, Rutgers University, 223C Lipman Hall, 76 Lipman Dr., New Brunswick, NJ, 08901, USA.


The contamination of groundwater with mercury (Hg) is an increasing problem worldwide. Yet, little is known about the interactions of Hg with microorganisms and their processes in subsurface environments. We tested the impact of Hg on denitrification in nitrate reducing enrichment cultures derived from subsurface sediments from the Oak Ridge Integrated Field Research Challenge site, where nitrate is a major contaminant and where bioremediation efforts are in progress. We observed an inverse relationship between Hg concentrations and onset and rates of denitrification in nitrate enrichment cultures containing between 53 and 1.1 μM of inorganic Hg; higher Hg concentrations increasingly extended the time to onset of denitrification and inhibited denitrification rates. Microbial community complexity, as indicated by terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism (tRFLP) analysis of the 16S rRNA genes, declined with increasing Hg concentrations; at the 312 nM Hg treatment, a single tRFLP peak was detected representing a culture of Bradyrhizobium sp. that possessed the merA gene indicating a potential for Hg reduction. A culture identified asBradyrhizobium sp. strain FRC01 with an identical 16S rRNA sequence to that of the enriched peak in the tRFLP patterns, reduced Hg(II) to Hg(0) and carried merA whose amino acid sequence has 97 % identity to merA from the Proteobacteria and Firmicutes. This study demonstrates that in subsurface sediment incubations, Hg may inhibit denitrification and that inhibition may be alleviated when Hg resistant denitrifying Bradyrhizobium spp. detoxify Hg by its reduction to the volatile elemental form.

Keywords:Denitrification; Subsurface; Bradyrhizobium; merA; Mercury reduction.

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