Future possibilities

Interesting future possibilities might include those proteins involved in the membrane transport of mercury. For example, LATs are believed to carry methylmercury as its cysteine complex into cells, including the endothelial cells of the blood-brain barrier.16 Some of these transporters have recently been cloned opening up possibilities for their measurement in cells. Allelic variants within the glycoprotein-associated amino acid transporters might play a role in susceptibility of the central nervous system to methylmercury. Methyl and inorganic mercury can be transported out of cells on carriers responsible for glutathione transport. Specifically, the secretion of mercury into bile and its ultimate fecal elimination involves glutathione carriers in the canalicular membrane of liver cells. These proteins have a potential as determinants of susceptibility.

In general, some 9000 genes have nucleotide sequences suggestive of coding for transport proteins.9 Two thousand of these may be for transport of foreign compounds. The bodily disposition of many other metals is controlled by protein carriers. Genetic errors in one such carrier (ABC7B) are known to cause Wilson's disease, which affects copper disposition in the body.

Besides the transport proteins, enzymes responsible for processing small molecular weight thiols offer potential for assays of susceptibility. As discussed above, two enzymes are involved in the conversion of the glutathione complexes to the transport species, namely, mercury cysteine. Enzymes controlling the plasma levels of cysteine and homocysteine might play a role in susceptibility to brain damage from methylmercury.

The area of molecular markers for effects and susceptibility to mercury and its compounds is still much in its infancy with exciting prospects. Studies conducted mainly in the past decade have indicated the important role of proteins in the transport and metabolism of mercury thiol complexes. From studies in this area, one would expect the new molecular markers to appear.

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