Selenium contamination represents one of the few clear cases where environmental pollution has led to devastation of wildlife populations, most notably in agricultural drainage evaporation and power plant coal-fly ash receiving ponds. Complex biogeochemistry, in particular extensive biotransformations and foodchain transfer, governs Se ecotoxicology and toxicology, for which the mechanism(s) are still elusive. However, total waterborne Se concentration has been widely used as a criterion for regulating and mitigating Se risk in aquatic ecosystems, which does not account for Se biogeochemistry and its site-dependence. There is a need for more reliable indicator(s) that encompass Se ecotoxicity and/or toxicity. Selenomethionine warrants special attention since it simulates Se toxicosis of wildlife in laboratory feeding studies. While low in free selenomethionine, microphytes isolated from Se-laden agricultural evaporation ponds were abundant in proteinaceous selenomethionine. This prompted a more extensive survey of Se speciation in foodchain organisms including microphytes, macroinvertebrates, fish, and bird embryos residing mainly in the agricultural drainage systems of the San Joaquin Valley, California. Total Se in biomass, water-soluble fractions, and protein-rich fractions were measured along with GC-MS analysis of proteinaceous selenomethionine. In all foodchain organisms, water-soluble Se constituted the major fraction of total biomass Se, while proteinaceous Se was a substantial, if not dominant, fraction of the water-soluble Se. In turn, proteinaceous selenomethionine comprised an important fraction of proteinaceous Se. In terms of total biomass Se, an average 1400-fold of Se biomagnification from water to microphytes was observed while subsequent transfer from microphytes to macroinvertebrates exhibited an average of only 1.9-fold. The latter transfer was more consistent and greater in extent for proteinaceous Se and proteinaceous selenomethionine, which is consistent with their importance in foodchain transfer. Proteinaceous Se in the omnivorous carp (Cyprinus carpio) liver also demonstrated a relation to ovarian lesions, while deformed stilt (Himantopus mexicanus) embryo was more abundant in proteinaceous selenomethionine than were normal embryos. Although limited in the number of organisms surveyed, these findings provide an impetus for further field and laboratory feeding studies to substantiate the hypothesis that proteinaceous selenomethionine underlies Se ecotoxicity, which may in turn prove to be a reliable indicator of Se risk in aquatic ecosystems.
- Foodweb organisms