Opening the black box of spring water microbiology from alpine karst aquifers to support proactive drinking water resource management

Domenico Savio, Philipp Stadler, Georg H Reischer, Alexander K T Kirschner, Katalin Demeter, Rita Linke, Alfred P Blaschke, Regina Sommer, Ulrich Szewzyk, Inés C Wilhartitz, Robert L Mach, Hermann Stadler, Andreas H Farnleitner

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

30 Citations (Scopus)


Over the past 15 years, pioneering interdisciplinary research has been performed on the microbiology of hydrogeologically well-defined alpine karst springs located in the Northern Calcareous Alps (NCA) of Austria. This article gives an overview on these activities and links them to other relevant research. Results from the NCA springs and comparable sites revealed that spring water harbors abundant natural microbial communities even in aquifers with high water residence times and the absence of immediate surface influence. Apparently, hydrogeology has a strong impact on the concentration and size of the observed microbes, and total cell counts (TCC) were suggested as a useful means for spring type classification. Measurement of microbial activities at the NCA springs revealed extremely low microbial growth rates in the base flow component of the studied spring waters and indicated the importance of biofilm-associated microbial activities in sediments and on rock surfaces. Based on genetic analysis, the autochthonous microbial endokarst community (AMEC) versus transient microbial endokarst community (TMEC) concept was proposed for the NCA springs, and further details within this overview article are given to prompt its future evaluation. In this regard, it is well known that during high-discharge situations, surface-associated microbes and nutrients such as from soil habitats or human settlements-potentially containing fecal-associated pathogens as the most critical water-quality hazard-may be rapidly flushed into vulnerable karst aquifers. In this context, a framework for the comprehensive analysis of microbial pollution has been proposed for the NCA springs to support the sustainable management of drinking water safety in accordance with recent World Health Organization guidelines. Near-real-time online water quality monitoring, microbial source tracking (MST) and MST-guided quantitative microbial-risk assessment (QMRA) are examples of the proposed analytical tools. In this context, this overview article also provides a short introduction to recently emerging methodologies in microbiological diagnostics to support reading for the practitioner. Finally, the article highlights future research and development needs. This article is categorized under: 1Engineering Water > Water, Health, and Sanitation2Science of Water > Water Extremes3Water and Life > Nature of Freshwater Ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1282
Pages (from-to)e1282
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 01 May 2018


  • alpine karst aquifers
  • drinking water resource protection
  • external fecal pollution
  • fecal indicator
  • future challenges
  • microbial fecal source tracking
  • microbial risk assessment
  • natural spring water microbes
  • online water quality monitoring
  • spring water microbiology
  • water abstraction management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Ecology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Ocean Engineering
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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