Fecal pollution of surface waters is measured by the concentration of E. coli bacteria in the water because E. coli is believed to live only in the intestines and waste of humans and other warm-blooded animals, and quickly die outside its host.
The presence of E. coli in water also serves as a marker for other potentially more harmful organisms that may accompany it. Positive E. coli tests may lead to the summertime closing of beaches and other recreational bodies of water.
In this new study, researchers report identifying and sequencing the genomes of nine strains of E. coli that have adapted to living in the environment independent of warm-blooded hosts. These strains are indistinguishable from typical E. coli based on traditional tests and yield a positive fecal coliform result though researchers say they may not represent a true environmental hazard.
“The basis for E. coli’s widespread use as a fecal pollution indicator is the traditional thinking that E. coli cannot survive for extended periods outside a host or waste, but this study indicates that’s not true,” said Kostas Konstantinidis, an assistant professor in the Georgia Tech School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “These results suggest the need to develop a new culture-independent, genome-based coliform test so that the non-hazardous environmental types of E. coli are not counted as fecal contamination.”
A paper describing the research was published April 11 in the early edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
Konstantinidis and Georgia Tech School of Biology graduate student Chengwei Luo compared the genomes of 25 different strains of E. coli and close relatives, which were sequenced by the Center for Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University, the Broad Institute in Massachusetts, or were publicly available in the National Center for Biotechnology Information database. Nine strains that were recovered primarily from environmental sources encoded all genes required for classification as E. coli.
“The orders-of-magnitude higher abundances of the group of organisms represented by these nine strains in environmental samples relative to those in human feces and the clinic indicate that they represent truly environmentally adapted organisms that are not associated primarily with mammal hosts,” explained Konstantinidis, who also holds a joint appointment in the Georgia Tech School of Biology.
By comparing the full genomes of the samples, the Georgia Tech researchers identified 84 genes specific to or highly enriched in the genomes of the environmental E. coli and 120 genes specific to the strains commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract of healthy humans, which are called commensal E. coli. They also detected recent genetic exchange of core genes within the environmental E. coli and within the commensal strains, but not from commensal genomes to their environmental counterparts.
The environment-specific bacteria included genes important for resource acquisition and survival in the environment, such as the genes required to utilize energy sources and to break down dead cellular material. In contrast, the gastrointestinal E. coli included several genes involved in the transport and use of nutrients thought to be abundant in the gut.
“The genomic data suggest that the environmental E. coli are better at surviving in the external environment, but are less effective competitors in the gastrointestinal tract than commensal E. coli, which tells us that the environmental bacteria are highly unlikely to represent a risk to public health,” explained Konstantinidis.
Collectively, this data also indicates that the environmental E. coli strains represent a distinct species from their commensal E. coli counterparts even though they are identified as E. coli based on the standard taxonomic methods. This work is consistent with a more stringent and ecologic definition for bacterial species than the current definition and suggests ways to start replacing traditional, culture-based approaches for defining diagnostic phenotypes of new species with genomic-based procedures.
The scientific, medical, regulatory and legal communities expect species to reasonably reflect the traits and habitat of an organism -- especially an organism like E. coli that has ramifications for diagnostic microbiology and for assessing fecal pollution of natural ecosystems. Efforts toward a more refined definition of this bacterial species are needed, according to Konstantinidis.
This study’s findings provide a way to start redefining E. coli species and testing for fecal contamination with procedures based on genomics and ecology.
“We are now working to develop a molecular assay that uses the gastrointestinal-specific genes as robust biomarkers to count commensal E. coli cells in environmental samples more accurately than current methods,” added Konstantinidis.
This project is supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) award to Georgia Tech and Michigan State University (Award No. DEB0516252) and a National Institutes of Health (NIH/NIAID) award to the Broad Institute (Award No. HHSN2722009000018C). The content is solely the responsibility of the principal investigators and does not necessarily represent the official views of NSF or NIH.
John Toon | Newswise Science News
Drone vs. truck deliveries: Which create less carbon pollution?
31.05.2017 | University of Washington
New study: How does Europe become a leading player for software and IT services?
03.04.2017 | Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung (ISI)
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Information Technology