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Fecal indicator bacteria from environmental sources; strategies for identification to improve water quality monitoring.


In tropical to temperate environments, fecal indicator bacteria (FIB), such as enterococci and Escherichia coli, can persist and potentially multiply, far removed from their natural reservoir of the animal gut. FIB isolated from environmental reservoirs such as stream sediments, beach sand and vegetation have been termed “naturalized” FIB. In addition, recent research suggests that the intestines of poikilothermic animals such as fish may be colonized by enterococci and E. coli, and therefore, these animals may contribute to FIB concentrations in the aquatic environment. Naturalized FIB that are derived from fecal inputs into the environment, and subsequently adapted to maintain their population within the non-host environment are termed “naturalized enteric FIB”. In contrast, an additional theory suggests that some “naturalized” FIB diverged from enteric FIB many millions of years ago and are now normal inhabitants of the environment where they are referred to as “naturalized non-enteric FIB”. In the case of the Escherichia genus, the naturalized non-enteric members are identified as E. coli during routine water quality monitoring. An over-estimation of the health risk could result when these naturalized, non-enteric FIB, (that is, not derived from avian or mammalian fecal contamination), contribute to water quality monitoring results. It has been postulated that these environmental FIB belonging to the genera Escherichia and Enterococcus can be differentiated from enteric FIB by genetic methods because they lack some of the genes required for colonization of the host intestine, and have acquired genes that aid survival in the environment. Advances in molecular tools such as next generation sequencing will aid the identification of genes peculiar or “enriched” in particular habitats to discriminate between enteric and environmental FIB. In this appraisal, we have reviewed the research studying “naturalized” FIB, and discussed the techniques for their differentiation from enteric FIB. This differentiation includes the important distinction between enteric FIB derived from fresh and non-recent fecal inputs, and those truly non-enteric environmental microbes, which are currently identified as FIB during routine water quality monitoring. The inclusion of tools for the identification of naturalized FIB (enteric or environmental) would be a valuable resource for future studies assessing water quality.

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