Earthworms as vectors of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in soil and vermicomposts

A. Prysor Williams, Paula Roberts, Lisa M. Avery, Ken Killham, David L. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


Survival and movement of Escherichia coli O157:H7 in both soil and vermicompost is of concern with regards to human health. Whilst it is accepted that E. coli O157:H7 can persist for considerable periods in soils, it is not expected to survive thermophilic composting processes. However, the natural behavior of earthworms is increasingly utilized for composting (vermicomposting), and the extent to which earthworms promote the survival and dispersal of the bacterium within such systems is unknown. The faecal material produced by earthworms provides a ready supply of labile organic substrates to surrounding microbes within soil and compost, thus promoting microbial activity. Earthworms can also cause significant movement of organisms through the channels they form. Survival and dispersal of E. coli O157:H7 were monitored in contaminated soil and farmyard manure subjected to earthworm digestion over 21 days. Our findings lead to the conclusion that anecic earthworms such as Lumbricus terrestris may significantly aid vertical movement of E. coli O157 in soil, whereas epigeic earthworms such as Dendrobaena veneta significantly aid lateral movement within compost. Although the presence of earthworms in soil and compost may aid proliferation of E. coli O157 in early stages of contamination, long-term persistence of the pathogen appears to be unaffected.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54-64
Number of pages11
JournalFEMS Microbiology Ecology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2006
Externally publishedYes


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