With global heavy metal contamination increasing, plants that can process heavy metals might provide efficient and ecologically sound approaches to sequestration and removal. Mercuric ion reductase, MerA, converts toxic Hg2+ to the less toxic, relatively inert metallic mercury (Hg0) The bacterial merA sequence is rich in CpG dinucleotides and has a highly skewed codon usage, both of which are particularly unfavorable to efficient expression in plants. We constructed a mutagenized merA sequence, merApe9, modifying the flanking region and 9% of the coding region and placing this sequence under control of plant regulatory elements. Transgenic Arabidopsis thaliana seeds expressing merApe9 germinated, and these seedlings grew, flowered, and set seed on medium containing HgCl2 concentrations of 25-100 microM (5-20 ppm), levels toxic to several controls. Transgenic merApe9 seedlings evolved considerable amounts of Hg0 relative to control plants. The rate of mercury evolution and the level of resistance were proportional to the steady-state mRNA level, confirming that resistance was due to expression of the MerApe9 enzyme. Plants and bacteria expressing merApe9 were also resistant to toxic levels of Au3+. These and other data suggest that there are potentially viable molecular genetic approaches to the phytoremediation of metal ion pollution.