Demonstration of an aggregated biomarker response approach to assess the impact of point and diffuse contaminant sources in feral fish in a small river case study.
The assessment of the exposure of aquatic wildlife to complex environmental mixtures of chemicals originating from both point and diffuse sources and evaluating the potential impact thereof constitutes a significant step towards mitigating toxic pressure and the improvement of ecological status. In the current proof-of-concept study, we demonstrate the potential of a novel Aggregated Biomarker Response (ABR) approach involving a comprehensive set of biomarkers to identify complex exposure and impacts on wild brown trout (Salmo trutta fario). Our scenario used a small lowland river in Germany (Holtemme river in the Elbe river catchment) impacted by two wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) and diffuse agricultural runoff as a case study. The trout were collected along a pollution gradient (characterised in a parallel study) in the river. Compared to fish from the reference site upstream of the first WWTP, the trout collected downstream of the WWTPs showed a significant increase in micronucleus formation, phase I and II enzyme activities, and oxidative stress parameters in agreement with increasing exposure to various chemicals. By integrating single biomarker responses into an aggregated biomarker response, the two WWTPs' contribution to the observed toxicity could be clearly differentiated. The ABR results were supported by chemical analyses and whole transcriptome data, which revealed alterations of steroid biosynthesis and associated pathways, including an anti-androgenic effect, as some of the key drivers of the observed toxicity. Overall, this combined approach of in situ biomarker responses complemented with molecular pathway analysis allowed for a comprehensive ecotoxicological assessment of fish along the river. This study provides evidence for specific hazard potentials caused by mixtures of agricultural and WWTP derived chemicals at sublethal concentrations. Using aggregated biomarker responses combined with chemical analyses enabled an evidence-based ranking of sites with different degrees of pollution according to toxic stress and observed effects.