Harmful compounds are continuously released to the environment by human activities. Mercury is one of them and
according to the World Health Organization it is one of the 10 chemicals of major public health concern.
Mercury sources are primarily coal combustion, industrial use, mining and waste incineration
(USGS, 2019). The emissions travel long distances and mercury remains in nature for an extremely long
As mercury pollution is a global problem, mercury and its most toxic form methylmercury also cause local issues. Finland is a land of many marshlands and lakes. These marshlands have been drained overtime to be used for agriculture and forestry. As the result of the ditching process the dangerous methylmercury that has bioaccumulated to the biomass for centuries, is released to nearby water bodies in the runoff water and then the Baltic Sea.
Mercury is a toxic heavy metal that damages lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes. It causes individuals to have
weakened immune system, problems with their digestive system and damaged nervous system. It also harms the
development of young children and fetuses.
(Mercury and Health. World
Health Organization. 2017)
Mercury can be found naturally from the atmosphere, bodies of water and soil. The most toxic form of mercury is methylmercury. It binds into organic substances and enriches in the food chains. Methylmercury has a harmful impact on behavioral, neurological and reproductive functions in animals. (Burbacher et al., 1987-1988. & Newland et al., 2006.) Humans get exposed to methylmercury most often by consuming large predator fish and crustaceans that have high concentrations of methylmercury.
Weekly tolerable intake of methylmercury is 1.3 μg/kg - The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)
"Almost all people in the world have at least trace amounts of methylmercury in their tissues, reflecting its pervasive presence in the environment.” - United States Environmental Protection Agency
Developing children and youth and fertile women should eat large fish only 1 or 2 times a month - Finnish Food Authority
The current solution to remove mercury from water is to filter it. There are various methods to filter mercury such as reverse osmosis filters and water distillers which both require a lot of energy (aquagear, 2021).. Chemical methods use chemical substances such as ferric salts or sulfide to produce a sludge with ionic mercury (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Superfund Remediation and Technology Innovation, 2007). This method is inexpensive but is not sustainable as chemicals are industrial products that require energy and raw materials to be produced and they create waste.
In our solution, MercuLess, water is purified from methylmercury pollution with the means of synthetic biology.
We break the bond between the methyl group and the mercury with a merA protein.
Then using a merB protein, the remaining ionic mercury is transformed into less toxic elemental mercury, which can be collected from the bioreactor and then upcycled for new appliances.
As these photoautotrophic bacteria use only light as their energy and carbon dioxide as their source of carbon to function, they hold endless possibilities for sustainable solutions in all sectors of industry. For industrial scale use, there are still multiple technical details to be solved.
Nevertheless the strength of the cyanobacteria is that no biological carbon sources or energy have to be added, which offers economic scalability. Neither complex mediums are needed as they naturally can grow in both saline or freshwater. Finally cyanobacteria are carbon sinks therefore contributing in the fight against climate change.
Our goal is to purify natural and processed waters from methylmercury pollution by using genetically modified cyanobacteria. Removing methylmercury from these waters will support ecological balances, enable the safe use of fish and provide clean habitats, while upcycling mercury. Our solution would be perfect to restore contaminated bodies of water or to purify industrial sewage. This means that various groups of people from industrial companies to nature conservationist organizations and individual forest owners may use MercuLess and make our water safer.
Animals, wildlife and humans, suffer from mercury. Methylmercury accumulates to various tissues and interferes with the metabolic activities causing necrosis and degeneration in them
The wellbeing and safety of organisms has a direct influence on entire ecosystems: every organism has its own role and harming just one can have major effects on the whole system. Also by protecting ecosystems we preserve biodiversity.
We know that the future holds threats to food security therefore it’s important to ensure that our waters are clean from mercury so that we can use fish and other seafoods safely.