Phenotypic variation as an indicator of pesticide stress in gudgeon: Accounting for confounding factors in the wild

The response of organisms to environmental stress is currently used in the assessment of ecosystem health. Morphological changes integrate the multiple effects of one or several stress factors upon the development of the exposed organisms. In a natural environment, many factors determine the patterns of morphological differentiation between individuals. However, few studies have sought to distinguish and measure the independent effect of these factors (genetic diversity and structure, spatial structuring of populations, physical-chemical conditions, etc.). In the present study, the authors investigated the relationship between pesticide levels measured at 11 sites sampled in rivers of the Garonne river basin (SW France) and morphological changes of a freshwater fish species, the gudgeon (Gobio gobio). Each individual sampled was genotyped using 8 microsatellite markers and their phenotype characterised via 17 morphological traits. This analysis detected a link between population genetic structure (revealed by a Bayesian method) and morphometry (linear discriminant analysis) of the studied populations. The authors then developed an original method based on general linear models using distance matrices, an extension of the partial Mantel test beyond 3 matrices. This method was used to test the relationship between contamination (toxicity index) and morphometry (PST of morphometric traits), taking into account (1) genetic differentiation between populations (FST), (2) geographical distances between sites, (3) site catchment area, and (4) various physical-chemical parameters for each sampling site. Upon removal of confounding effects, 3 of the 17 morphological traits studied were significantly correlated with pesticide toxicity, suggesting a response of these traits to the anthropogenic stress. The authors concluded that these results underline the importance of taking into account the different sources of phenotypic variability between organisms when identifying the stress factors involved. The separation and quantification of the independent effect of such factors provides an interesting outlook regarding the use of these evaluation metrics as indicators of ecosystem health.

Authors: Shinn C, Blanchet S, Loot G, Lek S, Grenouillet G. ;Full Source: Science of the Total Environment. 2015 Aug 29;538:733-742. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.08.081. [Epub ahead of print] ;