Mercury in Our Food | Chemical Research in Toxicology

May 24, 2019 - M.A. was partially supported by grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS R01ES07331, NIEHS R01ES10563...
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ToxWatch Cite This: Chem. Res. Toxicol. XXXX, XXX, XXX−XXX

Mercury in Our Food Pablo A. Nogara,† Marcelo Farina,‡ Michael Aschner,§ and Joao B. T. Rocha*,† †

Departamento de Bioquímica e Biologia Molecular, Centro de Ciências Naturais e Exatas, Universidade Federal de Santa Maria, Santa Maria, Rio Grande do Sul 97105-900, Brazil ‡ Departamento de Bioquímica, Centro de Ciências Biológicas, Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina, Florianópolis, Santa Catarina 88040-900, Brazil § Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York 10461, United States

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ABSTRACT: The methylation of mercuric mercury (Hg2+) in the aquatic sediments produces methylmercury (CH3Hg+), which is biomagnified along the food chain. The ingestion of piscivorous fish or aquatic mammals by pregnant women is of concern because it can cause long-lasting neurobehavioral deficits in their offspring.


However, several reports have indicated subtle and long-lasting neuropsychological effects resulting from relatively low-level CH3Hg+ exposures during periods of human brain development.1−4 While debatable as to whether very low levels of mercury during critical periods of human brain development can cause long-lasting cognitive impairments, in vitro and in vivo experimental data strongly attest to the sensitivity of the developing brain to CH3Hg+.1−4 Notably, the US EPA’s Mercury Study Report to Congress5 estimates that 8% of US women of childbearing age have blood mercury levels exceeding the reference-dose (RfD) of 0.1 μg Hg/kg body-weight/day. Furthermore, nearly 300 000 babies in the US may be at risk of having learning disabilities due to exposure to CH3Hg+ during the gestational period.5 The long-lasting disruption in synaptic transmission after CH3Hg+ intoxication has been demonstrated for excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, for instance, glutamate and GABA.2,4 The neurochemical disturbances caused by CH3Hg+ in neurotransmission are considered secondary molecular events that activate adverse outcome pathways (AOP) associated with CH3Hg+-induced neurotoxicity. However, our knowledge about the primary targets of CH3Hg+ is still limited. The identification of molecular initiating events (MIEs) involved in the toxicity of CH3Hg+ will require coordinate endeavors from neuroscientists, toxicologists, and analytical biochemists. Although different molecular targets of CH3Hg+ have been described, it is not clear whether they are the primary or secondary targets of CH3Hg+.2,4 Electrophilic mercury forms (CH3Hg+, CH3CH2Hg+, and Hg2+) have strong affinity for thiol and selenol groups (−S(e)H) and will form complexes with the sulfur or selenium atoms of −S(e)H groups (formation constants of CH3Hg−S-R1 and CH3Hg−Se-R2 complexes are in the range of 1015−20). Physiologically, R1- can be low molecular mass molecules (e.g., cysteine or glutathione) or thousands of high molecular mass thiol-containing proteins, whereas R2- can be a few high molecular mass selenol-containing proteins (human genome encodes 25 types of selenoproteins). Despite the high formation constant, free −S(e)− (thiolate or selenolate) groups can attack the −S(e)−Hg− bound at the mercury atom, forming a new

ercury (Hg) is one of the most toxic elements in the periodic table, particularly when in the cationic states (i.e., in the electrophilic Hg forms or E+Hg forms, for example, Hg2+, CH3Hg+, and CH3CH2Hg+). Elemental Hg (Hg0) is liquid at room temperature, and, as a consequence of this property, it has been exploited by humanity for centuries. Hg0 is utilized in artisanal gold mining and mercury-vapor lamps. It can still be found in medical devices (sphygmomanometers and thermometers).1,2 Exposure to ethylmercury (CH3CH2Hg+) remains a concern in developing countries, where CH3CH2Hg+ complexed with thiosalicylic acid forms the antimicrobial agent thimerosal (ethyl(2-mercaptobenzoato-(2-)-O,S) mercurate(1) sodium). Thimerosal is used as a preservative in multiple-dose vaccine vials,2 and newborns in developing countries are still commonly exposed to high levels of CH3CH2Hg+ during the schedule of immunization just after birth and during the first years of life. The natural and anthropogenic release of Hg in the environment are of great neurotoxicological concerns because the developing mammalian brain is susceptible to low concentrations of CH3Hg+.1−4 After the outbreaks of Minamata Bay in Japan, where humans were exposed to toxic levels of mercury released by Chisso Corporation, mercury became notorious for its neurotoxicity.1−4 Fish and seafood from Minamata Bay, Japan, contained elevated levels of mercury (from 6 to 36 ppm of Hg),2 and those who had fish as the primary source of protein developed neuropathological signs of intoxication (Minamata disease). The case of Minamata was instrumental in the history of environmental contamination by industrial waste products and to unravel the strong neuroteratogenic effects of CH3Hg+ in mammals.1−4 Indeed, the main lesson from the unfortunate outbreak in Minamata Bay was the tremendous susceptibility of the developing brain to CH3Hg+.1−4 The levels of mercury in fish from noncontaminated areas are lower than those found in Minamata Bay. For instance, piscivorous fish (shark, swordfish, cod, etc.) can have from 0.1 to 3 ppm of Hg in their muscles. Marine carnivorous mammals have even more, for instance, the liver of pilot whale (Globicephalus meleanus) can have nearly 10 ppm of Hg.2 Consumption of fish from noncontaminated regions typically does not produce overt signs of neurotoxicity. © XXXX American Chemical Society


DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.9b00126 Chem. Res. Toxicol. XXXX, XXX, XXX−XXX


Chemical Research in Toxicology

−S(e)−Hg− bond and releasing the formerly bound −S(e)H groups. Prof. Dallas Rabenstein first described this diffusion controlled type of exchange reaction in 1975.2 Rabenstein’s reactions can be represented as

R1−S(e)−HgCH3 + R 2−S(e)H ← → R1−S(e)H + R 2−S(e)−HgCH3

Where CH3Hg+ can shift from on −S−Hg− bound to free −S(e)H/−S(e)− groups. The migration of CH3Hg+ from −Se− Hg− bonds to free −SH/S− is not thermodynamically favorable B

DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.9b00126 Chem. Res. Toxicol. XXXX, XXX, XXX−XXX


Chemical Research in Toxicology unless a molar excess of −S− over −Se−Hg displace the Hg atom from the Se atom. Accordingly, the selenol have a stronger affinity for CH 3 Hg + than thiol groups, implying that selenoproteins are the preferential targets of CH3Hg+. Given the stronger affinity of cationic mercurials for selenol over thiol, different groups of researchers have postulated that selenolcontaining proteins (selenolproteins) are the preferential targets for E+Hg forms of mercury. Since various selenoproteins (for instance, glutathione peroxidase and thioredoxin reductase) metabolize pro-oxidative species, their inhibition by CH3Hg+ can increase cellular sensitivity to redox imbalance. The simultaneous targeting in the central nervous system (CNS) of a few antioxidant selenoproteins and thiol-containing proteins located in the external surface of the plasma membrane (receptors, channels, neurotransmitter carriers, ionic pumps, etc.) can work synergistically to disrupt the synaptic functioning and whole-cell metabolism. Glutamatergic neurotransmission is particularly important in mediating the neurotoxicity of CH3Hg+ because it is the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the mammalian CNS. Sustained increase in the extracellular levels of glutamate produces characteristic neuronal toxic effects, which collectively are termed excitotoxicity. Glutamatergic excitotoxicity is characterized by an overstimulation of ionotropic glutamatergic receptors (notably, N-methyl-Daspartate (NMDA) receptors), which causes intracellular Ca2+ overload and triggers a cascade of events, which will culminate in cell dysfunction and death.2,4 The knowledge available so far allows us to conclude that CH3Hg+ is an electrophilic toxicant with strong affinity for thiol and selenol groups. In accordance, thiol-containing proteins involved in the transport, metabolism, or signaling of neurotransmitters as well as antioxidant selenoenzymes (for instance, glutathione peroxidases, and thioredoxin reductases) have been indicated as critical targets of CH3Hg+. Their targeting by CH3Hg+ deregulates normal brain cell physiology, particularly in the developing synapses. The disruption of the chemical processes involved in brain synaptic assembly and communication can cause permanent behavioral and cognitive impairments in humans. Although the CH3Hg+ affinity for selenols is significantly higher than that for thiols, there are not sufficient data to support that selenoproteins represent the preferential target for CH3Hg+. Looking to the future, it seems that in vitro studies focusing on the elucidation of the primary targets will be profitable to the understanding of CH3Hg+ neurotoxicity, as well as for the discovery of potential biomarkers for subtle intoxications, and more efficacious antidotes. Moreover, studies on the adverse outcome pathways (AOPs) associated with CH3Hg+ neurotoxicity could represent the basis for the development of in silico physiological based kinetics (PBK) models6 to better predict the toxicity of CH3Hg+ in metazoan. Combined with system biology approaches,7 the in vitro and in silico approaches will facilitate the precise identification of the AOPs mediating CH3Hg+ toxicity, thus imparting novel strategies to minimize its neurotoxic effects.


Views expressed in this editorial are those of the authors and not necessarily the views of the ACS. The authors declare no competing financial interest.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS The work described herein was supported by Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa e Desenvolvimento (CNPq), FAPERGS, FAPERGS/CAPES DocFix, CAPES-PROEX (Nos. 23038.005848/2018-31, 0737/2018, 88882.182123/2018-01), FINEP, CAPES-PRINT. M.A. was partially supported by grants from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS R01ES07331, NIEHS R01ES10563, and NIEHS R01ES020852).


(1) Landrigan, P. J., Fuller, R., Acosta, N. J. R., Adeyi, O., Arnold, R., Basu, N. N., Baldé, A. B., Bertollini, R., Bose-O’Reilly, S., Boufford, J. I., et al. (2018) The Lancet Commission on pollution and health. Lancet 391 (10119), 462−512. (2) Nogara, P. A., Oliveira, C. S., Schmitz, G. L., Piquini, P. C., Farina, M., Aschner, M., and Rocha, J. B. T. (2019) Methylmercury’s chemistry: From the environment to the mammalian brain. Biochim. Biophys. Acta, Gen. Subj., DOI: 10.1016/j.bbagen.2019.01.006. (3) Karagas, M. R., Choi, A. L., Oken, E., Horvat, M., Schoeny, R., Kamai, E., Cowell, W., Grandjean, P., and Korrick, S. (2012) Evidence on the Human Health Effects of Low-Level Methylmercury Exposure. Environ. Health Perspect. 120, 799−806. (4) Atchison, W. D. (2005) Is chemical neurotransmission altered specifically during methylmercury-induced cerebellar dysfunction? Trends Pharmacol. Sci. 26 (11), 549−557. (5) US EPA. (1997) Mercury Study Report to Congress, Volume V: Health Effects of Mercury and Mercury Compounds, EPA-452/R-97− 0071997, Office of Air Quality Planning & Standards and Office of Research and Development, US EPA. (6) Punt, A. (2018) Toxicokinetics in Risk Evaluations. Chem. Res. Toxicol. 31 (5), 285−286. (7) Sturla, S. J., Boobis, A. R., FitzGerald, R. E., Hoeng, J., Kavlock, R. J., Schirmer, K., Whelan, M., Wilks, M. F., and Peitsch, M. C. (2014) Systems Toxicology: From Basic Research to Risk Assessment. Chem. Res. Toxicol. 27 (3), 314−329.


Corresponding Author

*E-mail: [email protected] ORCID

Joao B. T. Rocha: 0000-0003-3829-0595 C

DOI: 10.1021/acs.chemrestox.9b00126 Chem. Res. Toxicol. XXXX, XXX, XXX−XXX