Exposure to heavy metals (especially to mercury, cadmium, lead and arsenic) is an extremely important health hazard as cause a wide range of diseases from cancer to skeletal damage, renal disease or pulmonary disease to name a few (Jaerup (2003) British Medical Bulletin: 68:167-182). Sources of exposure to heavy metals include air, food and water. For our iGEM project, we decided to tackle the problem of heavy metal contamination in water. We specifically focused on mercury contamination.

Mercury is one of the elements of earth’s crust. When coal is burned, mercury is released into air and then settles in waterways. It is then converted into methylmercury by microorganisms. Methylmercury, which is highly toxic, accumulates in fish and shellfish. (US EPA, Mercury Basic Information Although the main route of exposure is through food, mercury in drinking water still remains a problem in some areas. It is only in 1992, that the regulation of mercury in water became effective: and the EPA safe standard for mercury (2ppb) started to be enforced (Mercury: drinking water contaminants [1])

The main health problems posed by inorganic mercury are lung damage as well as neurological damage.

The goal of our iGEM project is to create a microbial sensor and removal mechanism of inorganic mercury from water.