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Chemical Geology

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The relationships between soil parent lithology, nutrient concentrations, microbial biomass and community structure were evaluated in soils from a small watershed impacted by historic Hg mining. Upland and wetland soils, stream sediments and tailings were collected and analyzed for nutrients (DOC, SO4=, NO3−), Hg, MeHg, and phospholipid fatty acids (PLFA). Stream sediment was derived from serpentinite, siltstone, volcanic rocks and mineralized serpentine with cinnabar, metacinnabar and other Hg phases. Soils from different parent materials had distinct PLFA biomass and community structures that are related to nutrient concentrations and toxicity effects of trace metals including Hg. The formation of MeHg appears to be most strongly linked to soil moisture, which in turn has a correlative relationship with PLFA biomass in wetland soils. The greatest concentrations of MeHg (>0.5 ng g−1MeHg) were measured in wetland soils and soil with a volcanic parent (9.5–37 µg g−1 Hg). Mercury methylation was associated with sulfate-reducing bacteria, including Desulfobacter sp. and Desulfovibrio sp., although these organisms are not exclusively responsible for Hg methylation. Statistical models of the data demonstrated that soil microbial communities varied more with soil type than with season.