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A structural equation model of soil metal bioavailability to earthworms: confronting causal theory and observations using a laboratory exposure to field-contaminated soils

Beaumelle, Léa, Vile, Denis, Lamy, Isabelle, Vandenbulcke, Franck, Gimbert, Frédéric, Hedde, Mickaël
The Science of the total environment 2016 v.569-570 pp. 961-972
Aporrectodea caliginosa, bioavailability, biomarkers, cadmium, earthworms, ecosystems, ecotoxicology, lead, models, scanning electron microscopy, soil, soil solution, structural equation modeling, subcellular fractions, zinc
Structural equation models (SEM) are increasingly used in ecology as multivariate analysis that can represent theoretical variables and address complex sets of hypotheses. Here we demonstrate the interest of SEM in ecotoxicology, more precisely to test the three-step concept of metal bioavailability to earthworms. The SEM modeled the three-step causal chain between environmental availability, environmental bioavailability and toxicological bioavailability. In the model, each step is an unmeasured (latent) variable reflected by several observed variables. In an exposure experiment designed specifically to test this SEM for Cd, Pb and Zn, Aporrectodea caliginosa was exposed to 31 agricultural field-contaminated soils. Chemical and biological measurements used included CaC12-extractable metal concentrations in soils, free ion concentration in soil solution as predicted by a geochemical model, dissolved metal concentration as predicted by a semi-mechanistic model, internal metal concentrations in total earthworms and in subcellular fractions, and several biomarkers. The observations verified the causal definition of Cd and Pb bioavailability in the SEM, but not for Zn. Several indicators consistently reflected the hypothetical causal definition and could thus be pertinent measurements of Cd and Pb bioavailability to earthworm in field-contaminated soils. SEM highlights that the metals present in the soil solution and easily extractable are not the main source of available metals for earthworms. This study further highlights SEM as a powerful tool that can handle natural ecosystem complexity, thus participating to the paradigm change in ecotoxicology from a bottom-up to a top-down approach.