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Dynamics of crAssphage as a human source tracking marker in potentially faecally polluted environments

Ballesté, E., Pascual-Benito, M., Martín-Díaz, J., Blanch, A.R., Lucena, F., Muniesa, M., Jofre, J., García-Aljaro, C.
Water research 2019
Bacteroides, Escherichia coli, bacteria, coliphages, environmental factors, feces, humans, point source pollution, quantitative polymerase chain reaction, rain, rivers, sediments, sewage effluent, temperature, temporal variation, wastewater treatment, water management
Recent studies have shown that crAssphage is abundant in human faecal samples worldwide. It has thus been postulated as a potential microbial source tracking (MST) marker to detect human faecal pollution in water. However, an effective implementation of crAssphage in water management strategies will depend on an understanding of its environmental dynamics. In this work, the abundance and temporal distribution of crAssphage was analysed in the effluent of wastewater treatment plants using different sewage treatments, and in two rivers (water and sediments) that differ in pollution impact and flow regime. Additionally, the influence of environmental conditions (temperature and rainfall) on the removal of the marker was studied along a river section, and natural inactivation was assessed by a mesocosms approach. Molecular and culture-based tools were used to compare crAssphage abundance and dynamics with those of bacteria and bacteriophages currently applied as global indicators (E. coli, somatic coliphages, Bacteroides GA17 bacteriophages, and the human-associated MST markers HF183 and HMBif). CrAssphage concentrations in sewage effluent and river samples were similar to those of HF183 and HMBif and higher than other general and/or culture-based indicators (by 2-3 orders of magnitude). Measurement of crAssphage abundance revealed no temporal variability in the effluent, although rainfall events affected the dynamics, possibly through the mobilisation of sediments, where the marker was detected in high concentrations, and an increase in diffuse and point pollution. Another factor affecting crAssphage inactivation was temperature. Its persistence was longer compared with other bacterial markers analysed by qPCR but lower than culturable markers. The results of this study support the use of crAssphage as a human source tracking marker of faecal pollution in water, since it has similar abundances to other molecular human MST markers, yet with a longer persistence in the environment. Nevertheless, its use in combination with infectious bacteriophages is probably advisable.