Implementation and integration of microbial source tracking in a river watershed monitoring plan

Sci Total Environ. 2020 Sep 20;736:139573. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.139573. Epub 2020 May 21.


Fecal pollution of water bodies poses a serious threat for public health and ecosystems. Microbial source tracking (MST) is used to track the source of this pollution facilitating better management of pollution at the source. In this study we tested 12 MST markers to track human, ruminant, sheep, horse, pig and gull pollution to assess their usefulness as an effective management tool of water quality. First, the potential of the selected markers to track the source was evaluated using fresh fecal samples. Subsequently, we evaluated their performance in a catchment with different impacts, considering land use and environmental conditions. All MST markers showed high sensitivity and specificity, although none achieved 100% for both. Although some of the MST markers were detected in hosts other than the intended ones, their abundance in the target group was always several orders of magnitude higher than in the non-target hosts, demonstrating their suitability to distinguish between sources of pollution. The MST analysis matched the land use in the watershed allowing an accurate assessment of the main sources of pollution, in this case mainly human and ruminant pollution. Correlating environmental parameters including temperature and rainfall with MST markers provided insight into the dynamics of the pollution in the catchment. The levels of the human marker showed a significant negative correlation with rainfall in human polluted areas suggesting a dilution of the pollution, whereas at agricultural areas the ruminant marker increased with rainfall. There were no seasonal differences in the levels of human marker, indicating human pollution as a constant pressure throughout the year, whereas the levels of the ruminant marker was influenced by the seasons, being more abundant in summer and autumn. MST analysis integrated with land use and environmental data can improve the management of fecal polluted areas and set up best practice.

Keywords: Bacteroidales; Fecal pollution; Host-specific markers; Microbial source tracking; Water management.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ecosystem*
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Feces
  • Horses
  • Humans
  • Rivers*
  • Sheep
  • Swine
  • Water Microbiology
  • Water Pollution / analysis
  • Water Quality