Water quality impairment by fecal waste in coastal watersheds is a public health issue. The present study provided evidence for the use of a mitochondrial (mtDNA) marker to detect animal fecal sources in surface water. The accurate identification of fecal pollution is based on the notion that fecal microorganisms preferentially inhabit a host animal's gut environment. In contrast, mtDNA host-specific markers are inherent to eukaryotic host cells, which offers the advantage by detecting DNA from the host rather than its fecal bacteria. The present study focused on sampling water presumably from non-point sources (NPS), which can increase bacterial and nitrogen concentrations to receiving water bodies. Stream sampling sites located within the Piscataqua River Watershed (PRW), New Hampshire, USA, were sampled from a range of sites that experienced nitrogen inputs such as sewer and septic systems and suburban runoff. Three mitochondrial (mtDNA) gene marker assays (human, bovine, and canine) were tested from surface water. Nineteen sites were sampled during an 18-month period. Analyses of the combined single and multiplex assay results showed that the proportion of occurrence was highest for bovine (15.6%; n = 77) compared to canine (5.6%; n = 70) and human (5.7%; n = 107) mtDNA gene markers. For the human mtDNA marker, there was a statistically significant relationship between presence vs. absence and land use (Fisher's test p = 0.0031). This result was evident particularly for rural suburban septic, which showed the highest proportion of presence (19.2%) compared to the urban sewered (3.3%), suburban sewered (0%), and agricultural (0%) as well as forested septic (0%) sites. Although further testing across varied land use is needed, our study provides evidence for using the mtDNA marker in large watersheds.
Keywords: Fecal; Land use; Molecular sources; Surface water; mtDNA.