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Research article2023Peer reviewedOpen access

Dissolved organic matter thiol concentrations determine methylmercury bioavailability across the terrestrial-marine aquatic continuum

Seelen, Emily; Liem-Nguyen, Van; Wunsch, Urban; Baumann, Zofia; Mason, Robert; Skyllberg, Ulf; Bjorn, Erik


The most critical step for methylmercury (MeHg) bioaccumulation in aquatic food webs is phytoplankton uptake of dissolved MeHg. Dissolved organic matter (DOM) has been known to influence MeHg uptake, but the mechanisms have remained unclear. Here we show that the concentration of DOM-associated thiol functional groups (DOM-RSH) varies substantially across contrasting aquatic systems and dictates MeHg speciation and bioavailability to phytoplankton. Across our 20 study sites, DOM-RSH concentrations decrease 40-fold from terrestrial to marine environments whereas dissolved organic carbon (DOC), the typical proxy for MeHg binding sites in DOM, only has a 5-fold decrease. MeHg accumulation into phytoplankton is shown to be directly linked to the concentration of specific MeHg binding sites (DOM-RSH), rather than DOC. Therefore, MeHg bioavailability increases systematically across the terrestrial-marine aquatic continuum as the DOM-RSH concentration decreases. Our results strongly suggest that measuring DOM-RSH concentrations will improve empirical models in phytoplankton uptake studies and will form a refined basis for modeling MeHg incorporation in aquatic food webs under various environmental conditions.Methylmercury is a strong neurotoxin that accumulates in aquatic biota. Here, the authors demonstrate that the concentration of thiol compounds associated with dissolved organic matter controls the bioavailability of methylmercury in aquatic systems

Published in

Nature Communications
2023, Volume: 14, number: 1, article number: 6728
Publisher: Nature Research

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