The meaning of the standard fecal coliform test used to monitor water quality has been called into question by a new study that identified sources of Escherichia coli bacteria that might not indicate an environmental hazard.
Fecal pollution of surface waters is measured by the concentration of E. coli bacteria in the water because E. coli is believed to live only in the intestines and waste of humans and other warm-blooded animals, and quickly die outside its host. The presence of E. coli in water also serves as a marker for other potentially more harmful organisms that may accompany it. Positive E. coli tests may lead to the summertime closing of beaches and other recreational bodies of water.
In this new study, researchers report identifying and sequencing the genomes of nine strains of E. coli that have adapted to living in the environment independent of warm-blooded hosts. These strains are indistinguishable from typical E. coli based on traditional tests and yield a positive fecal coliform result though researchers say they may not represent a true environmental hazard.
"The basis for E. coli's widespread use as a fecal pollution indicator is the traditional thinking that E. coli cannot survive for extended periods outside a host or waste, but this study indicates that's not true," said Kostas Konstantinidis, an assistant professor in the Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "These results suggest the need to develop a new culture-independent, genome-based coliform test so that the non-hazardous environmental types of E. coli are not counted as fecal contamination."
A paper describing the research was published April 11 in the early edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
|Contact: Abby Robinson|
Georgia Institute of Technology Research News