In vivo formation of natural HgSe nanoparticles in the liver and brain of pilot whales

Zuzana Gajdosechova, Mohammed M. Lawan, Dagmar S. Urgast, Andrea Raab, Kirk G. Scheckel, Enzo Lombi, Peter M. Kopittke, Katrin Loeschner, Erik H. Larsen, Glenn Woods, Andrew Brownlow, Fiona L. Read, Jörg Feldmann, Eva M. Krupp

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To understand the biochemistry of methylmercury (MeHg) that leads to the formation of mercury-selenium (Hg-Se) clusters is a long outstanding challenge that promises to deepen our knowledge of MeHg detoxification and the role Se plays in this process. Here, we show that mercury selenide (HgSe) nanoparticles in the liver and brain of long-finned pilot whales are attached to Se-rich structures and possibly act as a nucleation point for the formation of large Se-Hg clusters, which can grow with age to over 5 μm in size. The detoxification mechanism is fully developed from the early age of the animals, with particulate Hg found already in juvenile tissues. As a consequence of MeHg detoxification, Se-methionine, the selenium pool in the system is depleted in the efforts to maintain essential levels of Se-cysteine. This study provides evidence of so far unreported depletion of the bioavailable Se pool, a plausible driving mechanism of demonstrated neurotoxic effects of MeHg in the organism affected by its high dietary intake
Original languageEnglish
Article number34361
Number of pages11
JournalScientific Reports
Early online date28 Sept 2016
Publication statusPublished - 28 Sept 2016

Bibliographical note

Acknowledgments Z.G. thanks to the College of Physical Sciences at University of
Aberdeen and Chevron USA for the provided studentship. P.M.K. is the recipient of an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship (FT120100277). Parts of this
research were undertaken on the XFM beamline at the Australian Synchrotron,
Victoria, Australia. The assistance of Daryl Howard (XFM beamline, Australian
Synchrotron) is acknowledged. Although EPA contributed to this article, the research presented was not performed by or funded by EPA and was not subject to EPA's quality system requirements. Consequently, the views, interpretations, and conclusions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect or represent EPA's views or policies. MRCAT operations are supported by the Department of Energy and the MRCAT member institutions. This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357. The authors declare no competing financial interests. F.L.R. and A.B. acknowledge Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme and Marine Scotland for funding.
Author Contributions E.M.K and J.F. designed the experiments. Z.G. measured total Hg and conducted Hg speciation. Total Se was determined by A.R. and Z.G. M.M.L. performed Se speciation and 2D imaging by LA-ICP-MS was done by D.S.U. XANES was performed by K.S. and XRF by E.L. and P.M.K. Samples were obtained by E.M.K. through A.B. and age determination was done by F.R. spICP-MS was performed by E.H.L., K.L., G.W. and Z.G. The manuscript was written by Z.G. and all authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.


  • biophysical chemistry
  • environmental chemistry


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