Environmental exposure to mercury can cause a number of adverse effects in humans including the disruption of endocrine function that may result in sex-specific effects. The present study was designed to characterize sex-specific effects of chronic inorganic mercury exposure on toll-like receptor (TLR) 2 and TLR4 and inflammatory signaling in the liver of prairie voles (Microtus ochrogaster). Following 10 weeks of exposure to mercury via drinking water, effects on protein expression levels of TLR2 and TLR4 and the downstream p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (p38 MAPK) and nuclear factor-kappa (NF-κB) signaling pathways were assessed. Using immunoblot analysis, we found that mercury exposure significantly enhanced the expression of TLR4 and activated p38 MAPK and NF-κB pathways in vole livers. This is the first report indicating that TLR4 may serve as a sensor for chronic mercury exposure in the liver. Further, compared to females, mercury-treated male voles exhibited significant increases in activated p38 MAPK and a greater extent of liver damage. Together, these findings establish sex-specific liver immunomodulation and cellular signaling following chronic inorganic mercury exposure. Furthermore, this study also supports the use of voles as biomarkers of environmental mercury contamination and offers a promising in vivo tool to test various therapeutic strategies for mercury detoxification.
- p38 MAPK
- prairie vole