Viability and infectivity of viable but nonculturable Legionella pneumophila strains induced at high temperatures

Sílvia Cervero-Aragó, Barbara Schrammel, Elisabeth Dietersdorfer, Regina Sommer, Christian Lück, Julia Walochnik, Alexander Kirschner

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

18 Citations (Scopus)


Thermal disinfection is commonly used to prevent the proliferation of culturable Legionella in engineered water systems (EWS). In response to such stress, culturable Legionella populations can switch into a viable but nonculturable (VBNC) state. The importance of such VBNC Legionella cells is currently hotly debated. Here, we investigated the stress response patterns and transitions of the bacteria to the VBNC state at 55 °C, 60 °C and 70 °C on two L. pneumophila strains for >80 days using a combination of cell-based viability indicators. Complete loss of culturability at 55 °C, 60 °C and 70 °C occurred after 3-8 h, 60 min and <2 min, respectively. In contrast, L. pneumophila strains required 9 days at 55 °C, 8 h at 60 °C and 20 min at 70 °C to achieve a 2 log reduction in cells with intact membranes and high esterase activity; a 4 log reduction was achieved only after 150, 8-15 and 1-4 days, respectively. In parallel, the presence of diagnostic outer-membrane epitopes (OMEs) and changes in the infectivity patterns of the two strains towards amoebae and THP-1 cells were assessed. OMEs were more persistent than viability indicators, showing their potential as targets for VBNC Legionella detection. L. pneumophila strains infected amoebae and THP-1 cells for at least 85 days at 55 °C and 60 °C and for up to 8 days at 70 °C. However, they did so with reduced efficiency, requiring prolonged co-incubation times with the hosts and higher Legionella cell numbers in comparison to culturable cells. Consequently, infection of amoebae by thermally induced VBNC L. pneumophila with lowered virulence can be expected in EWS. Although the gold standard method cannot detect VBNC Legionella, it provides important information about the most virulent bacterial subpopulations. Our results indicate that a prolonged thermal regime ≥60 °C at the central parts of warm water systems is not only effective against culturable L. pneumophila but in the long run even against VBNC cells.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)268-279
Number of pages12
JournalWater Research
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jul 2019


  • Amoeba
  • Disinfection
  • Legionella
  • Legionella pneumophila
  • Temperature
  • Acanthamoeba
  • Thermal disinfection
  • VBNC
  • Macrophages
  • Viability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Pollution
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Environmental Engineering
  • Civil and Structural Engineering


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