Physicochemical factors influence the abundance and culturability of human enteric pathogens and fecal indicator organisms in estuarine water and sediment

Francis Hassard, Anthony Andrews, Davey L. Jones, Louise Parsons, Vera Jones, Brian A. Cox, Peter Daldorph, Howard Brett, James E. McDonald, Shelagh K. Malham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

15 Citations (Scopus)


To assess fecal pollution in coastal waters, current monitoring is reliant on culture-based enumeration of bacterial indicators, which does not account for the presence of viable but non-culturable or sediment-associated micro-organisms, preventing effective quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA). Seasonal variability in viable but non-culturable or sediment-associated bacteria challenge the use of fecal indicator organisms (FIOs) for water monitoring. We evaluated seasonal changes in FIOs and human enteric pathogen abundance in water and sediments from the Ribble and Conwy estuaries in the UK. Sediments possessed greater bacterial abundance than the overlying water column, however, key pathogenic species (Shigella spp., Campylobacter jejuni, Salmonella spp., hepatitis A virus, hepatitis E virus and norovirus GI and GII) were not detected in sediments. Salmonella was detected in low levels in the Conwy water in spring/summer and norovirus GII was detected in the Ribble water in winter. The abundance of E. coli and Enterococcus spp. quantified by culture-based methods, rarely matched the abundance of these species when measured by qPCR. The discrepancy between these methods was greatest in winter at both estuaries, due to low CFU's, coupled with higher gene copies (GC). Temperature accounted for 60% the variability in bacterial abundance in water in autumn, whilst in winter salinity explained 15% of the variance. Relationships between bacterial indicators/pathogens and physicochemical variables were inconsistent in sediments, no single indicator adequately described occurrence of all bacterial indicators/pathogens. However, important variables included grain size, porosity, clay content and concentrations of Zn, K, and Al. Sediments with greater organic matter content and lower porosity harbored a greater proportion of non-culturable bacteria (including dead cells and extracellular DNA) in winter. Here, we show the link between physicochemical variables and season which govern culturability of human enteric pathogens and FIOs. Therefore, knowledge of these factors is critical for accurate microbial risk assessment. Future water quality management strategies could be improved through monitoring sediment-associated bacteria and non-culturable bacteria. This could facilitate source apportionment of human enteric pathogens and FIOs and direct remedial action to improve water quality.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1996
Number of pages18
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Publication statusPublished - 17 Oct 2017
Externally publishedYes

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