The objective of this work was to evaluate the transport of Escherichia coli cells in undisturbed cores of a brown leached soil collected at La Côte St André (France). Two undisturbed soil cores subjected to repeated injections of bacterial cells and/or bromide tracer were used to investigate the effect of soil hydrodynamics and ionic strength on cell mobility. Under the tested experimental conditions, E. coli cells were shown to be transported at the water velocity (retardation factor close to 1) and their retention appeared almost insensitive to water flow and ionic strength variations, both factors being known to control bacterial transport in model saturated porous media. In contrast, E. coli breakthrough curves evolved significantly along with the repetition of the cell injections in each soil core, with a progressive acceleration of their transport. The evolution of E. coli cells BTCs was shown to be due to the evolution of the structure of soil hydraulic pathways caused by the repeated water infiltrations and drainage as may occur in the field. This evolution was demonstrated through mercury intrusion porosimetry (MIP) performed on soil aggregates before and after the repeated infiltrations of bacteria. MIP revealed a progressive and important reduction of the soil aggregate porosity, n, that decreased from approximately 0.5 to 0.3, along with a decrease of the soil percolating step from 27 to 2 μm. From this result a clear compaction of soil aggregates was evidenced that concerned preferentially the pores larger than 2 μm equivalent diameter, i.e. those allowing bacterial cell passage. Since no significant reduction of the global soil volume was observed at the core scale, this aggregate compaction was accompanied by macropore formation that became progressively the preferential hydraulic pathway in the soil cores, leading to transiently bi-modal bacterial BTCs. The evolution of the soil pore structure induced a modification of the main hydrodynamic processes, evolving from a matrix-dominant transfer of water and bacteria to a macropore-dominant transfer. This work points out the importance of using undisturbed natural soils to evaluate the mobility of bacteria in the field, since the evolving hydrodynamic properties of soils appeared to dominate most physicochemical factors.
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