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Faculty & Staff Honors

South Carolina Researcher Wins NIH Grant to Study Methylmercury Exposure in Children

The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has awarded Dr. Sarah Rothenberg with an R21 grant ($386,741) to research methylmercury exposure through rice ingestion and offspring development in China. The study will also look at how gut microbiota metabolize methylmercury. Dr. Rothenberg is an assistant professor of environmental health sciences in the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health. South Carolina’s Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities, where Dr. Rothenberg serves as a faculty affiliate, will provide pre- and post-award support.

Sarah Rothenberg

[Photo: Dr. Sarah Rothenberg]

Methylmercury is a potent neurotoxin due to its ability to cross both blood-brain and placental barriers. About 95 percent of dietary methylmercury is absorbed into the bloodstream. It is then transported throughout the body and accumulated in tissues, including the brain, where it can lead to developmental delays.

“Gut microbes in our gastrointestinal tracts play an important role in metabolizing xenobiotics, including mercury,” says Dr. Rothenberg. “However, there are a lot of gaps in our understanding.”

To address these knowledge gaps, Dr. Rothenberg will examine the bi-directional associations between gut microbes, dietary methylmercury intake (through rice) and the accumulation of methylmercury in tissues of humans—more specifically, children. Results from this study will clarify our understanding of the mechanisms by which gut microbes contribute to variability in children’s methylmercury metabolism and exposure, potentially impacting their development.

“This research is part of the emerging field relating gut microbiota to human health,” Dr. Rothenberg says. “We hope these results will help clarify how gut microbiota metabolize methylmercury and eventually lead to nutritional therapies to reduce exposure to this potent neurotoxin.”