Toxic effects of dietary methylmercury on immune system development in nestling American kestrels (Falco sparverius)



This study evaluated the effects of dietary methylmercury (MeHg) on immune system development in captive-reared nestling American kestrels (Falco sparverius) to determine whether T cell–mediated and antibody-mediated adaptive immunity are targets for MeHg toxicity at environmentally relevant concentrations. Nestlings received various diets, including 0 (control), 0.6, and 3.9 µg/g (dry wt) MeHg for up to 18 d posthatch. Immunotoxicity endpoints included cell-mediated immunity (CMI) using the phytohemagglutinin (PHA) skin-swelling assay and antibody-mediated immune response via the sheep red blood cell (SRBC) hemagglutination assay. T cell– and B cell–dependent histological parameters in the spleen, thymus, and bursa of Fabricius were correlated with the functional assays. For nestlings in the 0.6 and 3.9 µg/g MeHg groups, CMI was suppressed by 73 and 62%, respectively, at 11 d of age. Results of this functional assay were correlated with T cell–dependent components of the spleen and thymus. Dose-dependent lymphoid depletion in spleen tissue directly affected the proliferation of T-lymphocyte populations, insofar as lower stimulation indexes from the PHA assay occurred in nestlings with lower proportions of splenic white pulp and higher THg concentrations. Nestlings in the 3.9 µg/g group also exhibited lymphoid depletion and a lack of macrophage activity in the thymus. Methylmercury did not have a noticeable effect on antibody-mediated immune function or B cell–dependent histological correlates. We conclude that T cell–mediated immunosuppression is the primary target of MeHg toward adaptive immunity in developing kestrels. This study provides evidence that environmentally relevant concentrations of MeHg may compromise immunocompetence in a developing terrestrial predator and raises concern regarding the long-term health effects of kestrels that were exposed to dietary MeHg during early avian development. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 2011; 30:1328–1337. © 2011 SETAC