Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Toxic element contamination and the occurrence of mercury-resistant bacteria in Hg-Contaminated soil, sediments, and sludges


River sediment, sludge, and soil samples were collected and analyzed for Hg, MeHg, Cd, Cr, Cu, Ni, Pb, and Zn. Volatile solids, chloride, sulphate, and sulphide were also assessed. Heavy metal contamination was present in all the samples, particularly soil and sediment. The 'k values for Cu were less than those for Hg and lower for soil than for river sediment. Complexation may be a major factor in Hg methylation as high 'k values reflected low MeHg levels. High chloride concentration was associated with low ratios of methyl to total Hg. Using DNA probe technology, the occurrence of DNA sequences typical of transposons Tn21 and Tn501 were determined for the samples. Observable (phenotypic) Hg resistance was greatest at sites of high Hg and chloride concentrations although genetic variation was greatest in soil and sediment samples with lower Hg concentrations. Isolation of Tn501-like elements increased when Hg was added to the medium. Mercury resistance systems which are not homologous at high stringency to themer operon appear to be common in soil, activated sludge, and river sediments.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. American Public Health Association (1985) Standard methods for the examination of water and wastewater, 16th Edition, p 209f

  2. Andren AW, Harriss RC (1975) Observations on the associations between mercury and organic matter dissolved in natural waters. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 39:1253–1257

  3. Barkay T, Fouts DL, Olson BH (1985) Preparation of a DNA gene probe for detection of mercury resistance genes in Gram-negative bacterial communities. Appl Environ Microbiol 49:686–692

  4. Barrineau P, Gilbert P, Jackson WJ, Jones CS, Summers AO, Wisdom S (1984) The DNA sequence of the mercury resistant operon of the IncFII plasmid NR1. J Mol Appl Genet 2:601–619

  5. Bartlett PD, Craig PJ (1981) Total mercury and methyl mercury levels in British estuarine sediments—II. Water Res 15:37–47

  6. Berman M, Bartha R (1986) Levels of chemical vs biological methylation in sediments. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol 36:401–404

  7. Blum JE, Bartha R (1980) Effect of salinity on methylation of mercury. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol 25:404–408

  8. Brinckman FE, Olson GJ (1988) Global biomethylation of the elements: Its role in the biosphere translated to new organometallic chemistry and biotechnology. In: Craig PJ, Glockling F (eds) The biological alkylation of heavy elements. Special Publication No 66, The Royal Soc of Chemistry, London, p 168

  9. Brown NL, Misra TK, Winnie A, Schmidt A, Seiff M and Silver S (1986) The nucleotide sequence of the mercuric resistance operons of plasmid R100 and Transposon Tn501 Further evidence former genes which enhance the activity of the mercuric ion detoxification system. Mol Gen Genet 202:143–151

  10. Bubb JM, Rudd T, Kirk PW, Beck MB, Wheater HS, Lester JN (1988) Mercury in the River Yare and its associated Broads: Survey and modelling. Astruc M, Lester JN (eds) Proc Int Conf Heavy Metals in the Hydrological Cycle, Lisbon, 1988. Selper Publications, London, p 137

  11. Compeau G and Bartha R (1984) Methylation and demethylation of mercury under controlled redox, pH and salinity conditions. Appl Environ Microbiol 48 (6): 1203–1207

  12. Craig PJ, Moreton PA (1986) Total mercury, methylmercury and sulphide levels in British estuarine sediments—III. Water Res 20:1111–1118

  13. Ford SJ, Simpson SC, Condliffe D and Olson BH (1988) Distribution of mercury resistance genes among resistance determinants in contaminated soils in the UK. Presented at 117th Ann Meeting Soc Mining Engineers, Phoenix, Az, Jan 25–28, 1988

  14. Forstner U (1985) Chemical forms and reactivities of metals in soils. In: Leschber R, Davies RD, L'Hermite P (eds) Chemical Methods for Assessing Bioavailable Metals in Sludges and Soils. Elsevier Applied Science, London, p 4

  15. Foster TJ, Brown NL (1985) Identification of themerR gene of R100 by usingmerlac gene and operon fusions. J Bacteriol 163: 1153–1157

  16. Gambrell RP, Khalid RA (1976) Physiochemical parameters that regulate mobilization and immobilization of toxic heavy metals. Proc Spec Conf Dredging Environ Effects. Mobile, AL, Jan 1976, ASCE, NY, p 418

  17. Grunstein M and Hogness DS (1975) Colony hybridization: A method for the isolation of cloned DNAs that contain a specific gene. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 72:3961–3965

  18. Hatch WR and Ott WI (1968) Determination of sub-microgram quantities of mercury by atomic absorption spectrophotometry. Anal Chem 40:2085–2087

  19. Heltzel A, Gambill D, Jackson WJ, Totis PA, Summers AO (1987) Overexpression and DNA-binding properties of themer-en- coded regulatory protein from plasmid NR-1 (Tn21). J Bacteriol 169:3379–3382

  20. Jernelov A, Asell B (1974) The feasibility of restoring mercury contaminated water. In: Proc Int Conf Heavy Metals in the Aquatic Environment, Vanderbilt Univ, Nashville, TN

  21. Jonasson IR, Boyle RW (1971) The geochemistry of mercury. In: Mercury in Man's Environment Proc Soc Can Symp, Ottawa, Canada 1971

  22. Krishnamurty KV, Shpirt R, Reddy MM (1976) Trace metal extraction of soil sediments by nitric acid hydrogen peroxide. Atomic Absorption Newsletter 15:68–70

  23. Longbottom JE, Dressman RC, Lichteinsberg LL (1973) Gas chromatographic determination of methylmercury in fish, sediments and water. J Assoc Offic Anal Chem 56(6): 1297–1303

  24. Lund PA, Ford SJ and Brown NL (1986) Regulation of expression of Tn501 mer genes. J Gen Microbiol 132:465–480

  25. Maniatis T, Frisch EF, Sambrook J (1982) Molecular cloning. A laboratory manual. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY

  26. Mantoura RFC, Dickson RA and Riley JP (1978) The complexation of metals with humic materials in natural waters. Estuarine Coastal Mar Sci 6:387–408

  27. Olson BH, Cooper RC (1976) Comparison of aerobic and anaerobic methylation of mercury chloride by San Francisco Bay sediments. Water Res 10:113–116

  28. Olson BH, Barkay T, Colwell RR (1979) Role of plasmids in mercury transformation by bacteria isolated from the aquatic environment. Appl Environ Microbiol 38:478–485

  29. Olson BH, Ford S, Lester JN (1987) The occurrence ofmerR andmerC gene sequences among mercury resistant determinants in river sediments containing elevated levels of mercury. Proc Oceans '87 Conf, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

  30. Olson BH, Lester JN, Cayless SM, Ford S (1989) Distribution of mercury resistance determinants in bacterial communities of river sediments. Water Res. (in press)

  31. Perkin-Elmer Corporation (1982) Analytical Methods for Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometry. Perkin-Elmer Ltd., Norwalk, CT

  32. Robinson JB, Tuovinen OH (1984) Mechanisms of microbial resistance and detoxification of mercury and organomercury compounds: physiological, biochemical and genetic analyses. Microbiol Rev 48(2):95–124

  33. Silver S, Misra T (1988) What DNA sequence analysis tells us about toxic heavy metal resistances. In: Craig PJ, Glockling F (eds) The biological alkylation of heavy elements. Special publication No. 66, The Royal Soc Chem, London, p 211

  34. Stanisich VA, Bennett PM, Richmond MH (1977) Characterization of a translocation unit encoding resistance to mercuric ions that occurs on a nonconjunctive plasmid inPseudomonas aeruginosa. J Bacteriol 128:1227–1233

  35. Sterritt RM, Lester JN (1980) Atomic absorption spectrophotometric analysis of the metal content of wastewater samples. Environ Technol Lett 1:402–417

  36. Stolzenburg TR, Stanforth RR, Nichols DG (1986) Potential health effects of mercury in water supply wells. J Amer Water Wks Assoc 78:45–48

  37. Summers AO (1986) Organisation, expression and evaluation of genes for mercury resistance. Ann Rev Microbiol 40:607–634

  38. Truitt RE, Weber JH (1981) Copper and cadmium binding abilities of some New Hampshire freshwaters determined by dialysis titration. Environ Sci Technol 15:1204–1208

  39. Uthe JF, Armstrong FAJ, Strainton MP (1970) Mercury distribution in fish samples by wet digestion and flameless atomic absorption. J Fish Res Board Can 27:805–811

  40. Wood JM (1984) Alkylation of metals and the activity of metal alkyls. Toxicol Environ Chem 7:229–240

  41. — (1988) Mechanisms for B12-dependent methyl transfer to heavy elements. In: Craig PJ, Glockling F (eds) The Biological Alkylation of Heavy Elements. Special Publication No. 66, The Royal Soc. of Chemistry, London, p 62

  42. WRC.Committee of Analytical Quality Control. (1984) The accuracy of determination of total mercury in river waters. TR219, Water Research Centre, Medmenham, UK

  43. Wren CD (1986) A review of metal accumulation and toxicity in wild mammals: I. Mercury. Environ Res 40(1):210–244

Download references

Author information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Olson, B.H., Cayless, S.M., Ford, S. et al. Toxic element contamination and the occurrence of mercury-resistant bacteria in Hg-Contaminated soil, sediments, and sludges. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 20, 226–233 (1991). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01055908

Download citation


  • Sludge
  • Activate Sludge
  • Chloride Concentration
  • River Sediment
  • Volatile Solid