Acclimation of Subsurface Microbial Communities to Mercury
De Lipthay, J.R., Rasmussen, L.D., Oregaard, G., Simonsen, K., Bahl, M.I., Kroer, N., & Sørensen, S.J. (2008). FEMS Microbiology Ecology, 65, 145-155.
As contamination of our oceans, freshwater sources, and soils continues to be an increasing concern, the need for research addressing the potential of remediating contaminated environments also becomes increasingly evident. Mercury (Hg) contamination of soil and water is a particular concern, since mercury is toxic even at very low concentrations. In this article by Lipthay, et al., the authors studied the adaptation of microbial communities to mercury in both mercury-contaminated and non-contaminated subsurface soils. The findings in this study point to the importance of the role of plasmids in the acclimation to mercury of the soil bacteria communities and, on the other hand, their importance in bioremediation efforts.
The authors’ analysis of contaminated and non-contaminated soils included diverse microbiological techniques:
(1) the appearance of colonies on R2A agar plates with or without Hg(II) amendment (to test the abundance of culturable bacteria),
(2) substrate utilization patterns in Biolog ECOplates with or without Hg(II) amendment (to measure the ability of soil bacteria to utilize single carbon sources),
(3) substrate utilization patterns in Biolog mt-2 plates amended with increasing concentrations of Hg(II) (to estimate the minimal inhibitory concentration of Hg(II) in the soil communities),
(4) merA PCR (to test for the presence of merA genes in whole community soil DNA extracts),
(5) IncP trfA1 PCR (to test for the presence of trfA1 genes of the IncP-1 incompatibility group of plasmids in whole community soil DNA extracts), and
(6) 16S rRNA gene denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) analysis (to analyze the genetic diversity of the various bacterial soil communities).
As expected, the abundance of culturable, mercury-resistant bacteria was higher in the mercury-contaminated soils than in the non-contaminated soils and the soil communities from the contaminated site were better adapted to mercury. Results also suggested a higher diversity of mercury-resistant bacteria in the surface soil communities than in the subsurface soil communities. Treatment of the soils with mercury though, resulted in an equally diverse mercury-resistant population in both subsurface and surface soil communities. This increase in diversity following mercury “stimulation” is similar to results found in another study (Muller et al., 2001a), and the authors point out that it is probably the result of either 1) growth of previously low abundance resistant bacteria or 2) transfer of the mer operon by horizontal gene exchange, leading to elevated mercury resistance in the bacterial soil community.
The mercury tolerance of the soil bacteria communities decreased with depth in both the contaminated and non-contaminated soils, with tolerance levels being greater overall in microbial communities from the contaminated soils. Mercury tolerance increased significantly after mercury amendment, indicating a shift in community composition. This increase in tolerance is also most likely due to horizontal gene transfer of the mer operon. Before mercury was added to soils, PCR targeting merA genes resulted only in PCR products from the contaminated soils (cultivation-based methods were used to show that mercury-resistant bacteria were present in non-contaminated soils). After mercury-amendment merA genes were found in all soils, thus demonstrating the adaptive potential of the soil bacteria communities.
IncP-1 trfA1 genes were detected only in DNA extracted from the contaminated soils, not from the non-contaminated soils, and were also more abundant in the surface soil than in subsurface soils.
Another interesting finding of this study to note here is that the microbial diversity did not generally decrease with soil depth, thus contradicting one of the authors’ original hypotheses.
Through biparental exogenous plasmid isolation, the authors found four different mercury-resistance plasmids (pCPH-001, -002, -003, and -004). Further analysis of these plasmids confirmed that all four had identical partial trfA sequences (and belonged to the IncP-1B group), yet had different merA genes. All four plasmid types were isolated from the contaminated surface soil; however, only plasmid pCPH-001 was isolated from the two subsurface soils. This finding of a higher diversity of mercury-resistance plasmids in the surface soil compared with the subsurface soils corresponds well with the findings of a higher diversity of mercury-resistant bacteria in the contaminated surface soil. In contrast, no mercury-resistance plasmids were retrieved from the non-contaminated soils. The observations in this study, that IncP-1 plasmids are present in contaminated but not in non-contaminated soils, are similar to those in other studies (Smalla et al., 2000; Campbell et al., 1995) and are evidence of the importance of IncP-1 plasmids in the dissemination of adaptive functional traits in microbial communities.
The authors suggest that the findings of this study are important to bear in mind when considering bioremediation of mercury-polluted environments.
Campbell, J.I.A., Jacobsen, C.S., & Sørensen, J. (1995). Species variation and plasmid incidence among fluorescent Pseudomonas strains isolated from agricultural and industrial soils. FEMS Microbiology Ecology, 18, 51–62.
Muller, A.K., Rasmussen, L.D., & Sørensen, S.J. (2001a). Adaptation of the bacterial community to mercury contamination. FEMS Microbiology Letters, 204, 49–53.
Smalla, K., Krogerrecklenfort, E., Heuer, H., et al. (2000) PCR-based detection of mobile genetic elements in total community DNA. Microbiology, 146, 1256–1257.
Matt Bauer, B.S.
University of Idaho