Rice consumption is now recognized as an important pathway of human exposure to the neurotoxin methylmercury (MeHg), particularly in countries where rice is a staple food. Although the discovery of a two-gene cluster hgcAB has linked Hg methylation to several phylogenetically diverse groups of anaerobic microorganisms converting inorganic mercury (Hg) to MeHg, the prevalence and diversity of Hg methylators in microbial communities of rice paddy soils remain unclear. We characterized the abundance and distribution of hgcAB genes using third-generation PacBio long-read sequencing and Illumina short-read metagenomic sequencing, in combination with quantitative PCR analyses in several mine-impacted paddy soils from southwest China. Both Illumina and PacBio sequencing analyses revealed that Hg methylating communities were dominated by iron-reducing bacteria (i.e., Geobacter) and methanogens, with a relatively low abundance of hgcA + sulfate-reducing bacteria in the soil. A positive correlation was observed between the MeHg content in soil and the relative abundance of Geobacter carrying the hgcA gene. Phylogenetic analysis also uncovered some hgcAB sequences closely related to three novel Hg methylators, Geobacter anodireducens, Desulfuromonas sp. DDH964, and Desulfovibrio sp. J2, among which G. anodireducens was validated for its ability to methylate Hg. These findings shed new light on microbial community composition and major clades likely driving Hg methylation in rice paddy soils.
Journal: Environmental science & technology