Enterococcus and escherichia coli fecal source apportionment with microbial source tracking genetic markers - Is it feasible?

Dan Wang, Andreas H. Farnleitner, Katharine G. Field, Hyatt C. Green, Orin C. Shanks, Alexandria B. Boehm*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal article (peer-reviewed)Journal article

38 Citations (Scopus)


Fecal pollution is measured in surface waters using culture-based measurements of enterococci and Escherichia coli bacteria. Source apportionment of these two fecal indicator bacteria is an urgent need for prioritizing remediation efforts and quantifying health risks associated with source-specific pathogens. There are a number of quantitative real-time PCR (QPCR) assays that estimate concentrations of source-associated genetic markers; however, their concentrations are not necessarily amenable to source apportionment because the markers may differ in prevalence across sources. Here we mathematically derive and test, under ideal conditions, a method that utilizes the ratios of fecal source-associated genetic markers and culture and molecular measurements of general fecal indicators to apportion enterococci and E. coli. The source contribution is approximately equal to the ratio of the source-associated and the general fecal indicator concentrations in a water sample divided by their ratio in the source material, so long as cross-reactivity is negligible. We illustrate the utility of the ratio method using samples consisting of mixtures of various fecal pollution sources. The results from the ratio method correlated well with the actual source apportionment in artificial samples. However, aging of contamination can confound source allocation predictions. In particular, culturable enterococci and E. coli, the organisms presently regulated in the United States and much of the world, decay at different rates compared to source-associated markers and as a result cannot be apportioned using this method. However, limited data suggest a similar decay rate between source-associated and QPCR-measured Enterococcus and E. coli genetic markers, indicating that apportionment may be possible for these organisms; however further work is needed to confirm.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6849-6861
Number of pages13
JournalWater Research
Issue number18
Publication statusPublished - 15 Nov 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Fecal pollution
  • Microbial source tracking
  • Water quality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecological Modeling
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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