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Published March 2008 | Submitted
Journal Article Open

Bistable Equilibrium Points of Mercury Body Burden


In the last century, mercury levels in the global environment have tripled as a result of increased pollution from industrial, occupational, medicinal and domestic uses. Glutathione is known to be the main agent responsible for the excretion of mercury (Refs. 2 to 4). It has also been shown that mercury inhibits glutathione synthetase (an enzyme acting in the synthesization of glutathione), therefore leading to decreased glutathione levels (Refs. 5 to 7). Mercury also interferes with the production of heme in the porphyrin pathway. Heme is needed for biological energy production and ability to detox organic toxins via the P450 enzymes. The purpose of this paper is to show that the body's response to mercury exposure is hysteretic, i.e. when this feedback of mercury on its main detoxifying agents is strong enough, then mercury body burden has two points of equilibrium: one with normal abilities to detoxify and low levels of mercury and one with inhibited abilities to detoxify and high levels of mercury. Furthermore, a small increase of the body's mercury burden may not be sufficient to trigger observable neurotoxic effects but it may be sufficient to act as a switch leading to an accumulation of mercury in the body through environmental exposure until its toxicity is manifested.

Additional Information

© 2008 World Scientific Publishing Company. Received: 3 October 2006; Revised: 19 October 2007. We would like to thank Boyd E. Haley for comments which have led to significant changes to this paper, for bringing to our attention the other factors at play in mercury toxicity besides glutathione levels and highlighting Refs. 12 and 18 to us. We would also like to thank two anonymous referees for valuable and detailed comments and suggestions.

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