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Chemical Forms of Mercury in Pilot Whales Determined from Species-Averaged Mercury Isotope Signatures


Marine mammals detoxify organic methylmercury (MeHg) as inorganic mercury selenide (HgSe), yet the nature of the reaction intermediate species and the tissue-specific redistribution of Hg species in the body are unknown. We report that the identity and proportion of the dominant Hg species in long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) tissues can be obtained from the bulk variation of isotopic values of δ202Hg against the extent of demethylation (percentage of total Hg as MeHg, %MeHg) using an alternating regularized inversion method. Our analysis of isotope data from two previous studies supports that MeHg is demethylated as a tetraselenolate species (Hg(Sec)4), which further transforms into HgSe. Hg(Sec)4 occurs in the liver, kidneys, muscle, heart, and brain, whereas HgSe biomineralization occurs only in the liver and kidneys. This study provides a mathematical approach that facilitates probing the molecular-level chemistry of mercury in biological tissues using bulk isotopic data.

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