Microbial Source Tracking: State of the Science

Environ Sci Technol. 2002 Dec 15;36(24):5279-88. doi: 10.1021/es026000b.


Although water quality of the Nation's lakes, rivers and streams has been monitored for many decades and especially since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, many still do not meet the Act's goal of "fishable and swimmable". While waterways can be impaired in numerous ways, the protection from pathogenic microbe contamination is most important for waters used for human recreation, drinking water and aquaculture. Typically, monitoring methods used for detecting potential pathogenic microorganisms in environmental waters are based upon cultivation and enumeration of fecal indicator bacteria (i.e. fecal coliforms, E. coli, and fecal enterococci). Currently, there is increasing interest in the potential for molecular fingerprinting methods to be used not only for detection but also for identification of fecal contamination sources. Molecular methods have been applied to study the microbial ecology of environmental systems for years and are now being applied to help improve our waters by identifying problem sources and determining the effect of implemented remedial solutions. Management and remediation of water pollution would be more cost-effective if the correct sources could be identified. This review provides an outline of the main methods that either have been used or have been suggested for use in microbial source tracking and some of the limitations associated with those methods.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Electrophoresis, Gel, Pulsed-Field / methods
  • Enterobacteriaceae / genetics
  • Enterobacteriaceae / growth & development
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / growth & development
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction / methods
  • Polymorphism, Restriction Fragment Length
  • Ribotyping / methods
  • Water / chemistry
  • Water Microbiology / standards*
  • Water Pollutants / analysis
  • Water Pollution / analysis
  • Water Supply / standards*


  • Water Pollutants
  • Water