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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2008

Do potential methylation rates reflect accumulated methyl mercury in contaminated sediments?

Drott, Andreas; Lambertsson, Lars; Bjorn, Erik; Skyllberg, Ulf


Relationships between the short-term mono-methyl mercury (MeHg) production, determined as the specific, potential methylation rate constant K-m (day(-1)) after 48 h of incubation with isotope-enriched Hg-201(II) at 23 degrees C, and the long-term accumulation of ambient MeHg, were investigated in contaminated sediments. The sediments covered a range of environments from small freshwater lakes to large brackish water estuaries and differed with respect to source and concentration of Hg, salinity, primary productivity, quantity and quality of organic matter, and temperature climate. Significant (p < 0.001), positive relationships were observed between K-m (day(-1)) and the concentration of MeHg normalized to total Hg (%MeHg) for surface sediments (0-10,0-15, and in one case 0-20 cm) across all environments, and across subsets of organic and minerogenic freshwaters. This suggests that the methylation process (MeHg production) overruled demethylation and net transport processes in the surface sediments. The lack of a relationship between Km and %MeHg in two brackish water sediment depth profiles(0-100 cm) indicates that demethylation and the net effect of input-output are relatively more important at greater depths. Differences in the primary production and subsequent availability of easily degradable organic matter(serving as electron donor for methylating bacteria) was indicated to be the most important factor behind observed differences in %MeHg and K-m among sites. In contrast, concentrations of sulfate were not correlated to Km, %MeHg, or absolute concentrations of MeHg. We conclude that total concentrations of Hg are of importance for the long-term accumulation of MeHg, and that %MeHg in surface sediments can be used as a proxy for the rate of methylation, across a range of sites from different environments.

Published in

Environmental Science and Technology
2008, Volume: 42, number: 1, pages: 153-158