The sleepy fishing village of Minamata, Japan, 1956: and the neighbourhood cats have gone mad. They claw, scratch, and scream, sometimes breaking into convulsions before dropping dead. Then something more serious happens. Physicians are baffled by a 5-year-old girl who has trouble walking and talking. Her suite of symptoms is like nothing the medics have seen before. Two days later, the girl’s sister develops the same symptoms – and other cases quickly follow… Another unexpected discovery is that wastewater treatment plants and bioreactors seem to host bacteria with the genes for methylmercury production. Future studies of gene activation in bacterial communities as a whole may help uncover whether there is significant production of methylmercury at these facilities… Still, the ability to map methylmercury genes is a promising development on its own. The US is one of 15 countries so far to join the Minamata Convention, a UN-brokered agreement which aims to limit methylmercury worldwide – and which is named after the Japanese village where methylmercury research began… "Within that plan, monitoring will be extremely important, because how else will we know we are reaching our goals?" says Tamar Barkay of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Read the entire article at www.newscientist.com »