Using tissue cysteine to predict the trophic transfer of methylmercury and selenium in lake food webs Academic Article uri icon

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  • The biomagnification of toxic methylmercury (MeHg) and selenium (Se) through aquatic food webs using nitrogen stable isotopes (δ15N) varies among ecosystems but underlying mechanisms are yet unexplained. Given the strong links between MeHg and thiol-containing amino acids and proteins containing selenocysteine, our hypothesis was that cysteine content is a better predictor of MeHg and Se transfer through lake food webs than δ15N. Food web samples were collected from six lakes in Kejimkujik National Park, Nova Scotia, Canada, and the regression slopes of log MeHg or Se versus protein-bound cysteine or bulk δ15N were compared. Across all six lakes, MeHg varied by a factor of 10 among taxa and was significantly and positively related to both cysteine (R2 = 0.65-0.80, p < 0.001) and δ15N (R2 = 0.88-0.94, p < 0.001), with no among-system differences in these slopes. In contrast, total Se concentrations varied by less than a factor of 2 among taxa in four lakes and were significantly related to cysteine in only two food webs (R2 = 0.20 & 0.37, p = 0.014 & < 0.001); however, δ15N was not a predictor of Se in any lake (p = 0.052-0.777). Overall, these novel results indicate that cysteine content predicts MeHg, and sometimes Se, across trophic levels, providing a potential mechanism for among-system differences in their biomagnification.


  • Thera, Jennifer C
  • Kidd, Karen
  • Stewart, A Robin
  • Bertolo, Robert F
  • O'Driscoll, Nelson J

publication date

  • October 2022