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Critical Evaluation of CrAssphage as a Molecular Marker for Human-Derived Wastewater Contamination in the Aquatic Environment

Farkas, Kata, Adriaenssens, Evelien M., Walker, David I., McDonald, James E., Malham, Shelagh K., Jones, Davey L.
Food and environmental virology 2019 v.11 no.2 pp. 113-119
Adenoviridae, Norovirus, Polyomaviridae, Sapovirus, aquatic environment, bacteriophages, disease outbreaks, estuaries, genetic markers, genome, humans, monitoring, mussels, pathogens, quantitative polymerase chain reaction, risk assessment, rivers, seasonal variation, sediments, surface water, viral contamination, viral load, wastewater, water pollution, water quality, United Kingdom
The discharge of human-derived wastewater represents a major threat to water quality with the potential for waterborne disease outbreaks mainly associated with enteric viruses. To prevent illnesses, indicators associated with fecal contamination are monitored in polluted areas, however, their prevalence often does not correlate well with viral pathogens. In this study, we used crAssphage, a recently discovered human-specific gut-associated bacteriophage, for the surveillance of wastewater-derived viral contamination. Untreated and treated wastewater, surface water, sediment and mussel samples were collected monthly over 1 year from the Conwy River and estuary (UK) and were analyzed for crAssphage marker by quantitative PCR. This is the first long-term catchment-to-coast scale study of environmental crAssphage concentrations. CrAssphage was detected in all sample types and showed no distinct seasonal pattern. CrAssphage concentrations were 2 × 10⁵–10⁹ genome copies (gc)/L in all untreated wastewater influent and 10⁷–10⁸ gc/L in secondary treated effluent samples, 3 × 10³ gc/L–3 × 10⁷ gc/L in surface water samples (94% positive) and 2 × 10²–10⁴ gc/g sediment (68% positive) and mussel digestive tissue (79% positive). CrAssphage concentrations were 1–5 log₁₀ higher than human enteric virus titers (norovirus, sapovirus, adenovirus, polyomavirus). Our results indicate that crAssphage is well suited to tracking human wastewater contamination and pollution risk assessment in aquatic environments.