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4 Ways to Understand Microbial Source Tracking

Microbial source tracking is a set of techniques used to identify the sources of fecal pollution in the environment. Since the Clean Water Act of 1972 there has been a common goal of making waterways suitable for fishing and swimming by preventing further pollution. Microbial source tracking is used to asses water quality and determine what organisms are introducing the fecal pollutants.

1. Understanding Fecal Indicator Bacteria

Fecal indicator bacteria are usually found in the gut of animals and humans. These include E. coli, the enterococcus subgroup, C. perfringens, and many more. Because these microorganisms are usually present in the intestinal tract their presence in an environment is an indication of the presence of fecal pollution. These microorganisms are not necessarily dangerous but when they are present in higher concentrations they are usually accompanied by other disease causing pathogens and organisms.

2. Determining the Source of a Pollutant

There are many different methods for determining the sources of fecal pollutants in environments. Physical or genetic attributes can be used to identify a microorganism. Once properly identified a source can be determined. Many sources are determined by:

Bacteria specific to a certain host. For example, Rhodococcus coprophilis is associated with grazing animals like cattle.

Viruses found in bacteria that correspond to a certain host. Enteroviruses are associated with human fecal pollution and are commonly present in sewage.

Genetic markers in DNA. If a small DNA sample is multiplied genetic markers can be detected and identified to determine a host.

This table provides a more in depth description of host specificity.

3. New Technology is Being Introduced

The PhyloChip is a recent development in the microbial source tracking industry. It is a device that detects fecal bacteria from a multitude of animals in a single test. A new research study using this technology showed this test to be 100% sensitive to the presence of fecal indicator bacteria. The same researchers began a database by sampling feces from various animals. Now the information gathered by the PhyloChip can be compared against this database of animal feces to determine the source of pollution.

4. Clean Water is the Goal

Microbial source tracking uses a variety of different methods to detect and identify fecal indicator bacteria in an environment. The Clean Water Act was an effort to make America’s waters fishable and swimmable but there is a global goal of providing access to clean water to all people. The continued research and new developments in microbial source tracking will lead to successful steps toward cleaner water for all of humanity.


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