Effects of methyl and inorganic mercury exposure on genome homeostasis and mitochondrial function in Caenorhabditis elegans

Lauren H. Wyatt, Anthony L. Luz, Xiou Cao, Laura L. Maurer, Ashley M. Blawas, Alejandro Aballay, William K.Y. Pan, Joel N. Meyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Mercury toxicity mechanisms have the potential to induce DNA damage and disrupt cellular processes, like mitochondrial function. Proper mitochondrial function is important for cellular bioenergetics and immune signaling and function. Reported impacts of mercury on the nuclear genome (nDNA) are conflicting and inconclusive, and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) impacts are relatively unknown. In this study, we assessed genotoxic (mtDNA and nDNA), metabolic, and innate immune impacts of inorganic and organic mercury exposure in Caenorhabditis elegans. Genotoxic outcomes measured included DNA damage, DNA damage repair (nucleotide excision repair, NER; base excision repair, BER), and genomic copy number following MeHg and HgCl2 exposure alone and in combination with known DNA damage-inducing agents ultraviolet C radiation (UVC) and hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), which cause bulky DNA lesions and oxidative DNA damage, respectively. Following exposure to both MeHg and HgCl2, low-level DNA damage (∼0.25 lesions/10 kb mtDNA and nDNA) was observed. Unexpectedly, a higher MeHg concentration reduced damage in both genomes compared to controls. However, this observation was likely the result of developmental delay. In co-exposure treatments, both mercury compounds increased initial DNA damage (mtDNA and nDNA) in combination with H2O2 exposure, but had no impact in combination with UVC exposure. Mercury exposure both increased and decreased DNA damage removal via BER. DNA repair after H2O2 exposure in mercury-exposed nematodes resulted in damage levels lower than measured in controls. Impacts to NER were not detected. mtDNA copy number was significantly decreased in the MeHg-UVC and MeHg-H2O2 co-exposure treatments. Mercury exposure had metabolic impacts (steady-state ATP levels) that differed between the compounds; HgCl2 exposure decreased these levels, while MeHg slightly increased levels or had no impact. Both mercury species reduced mRNA levels for immune signaling-related genes, but had mild or no effects on survival on pathogenic bacteria. Overall, mercury exposure disrupted mitochondrial endpoints in a mercury-compound dependent fashion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)31-48
Number of pages18
JournalDNA Repair
StatePublished - Apr 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Caenorhabditis elegans
  • Copy number
  • DNA damage
  • Innate immunity
  • Mercury
  • Mitochondria

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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