Microbial Source Tracking Using Quantitative and Digital PCR To Identify Sources of Fecal Contamination in Stormwater, River Water, and Beach Water in a Great Lakes Area of Concern Academic Article uri icon

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  • ABSTRACTAreas of concern (AOCs) around the Great Lakes are characterized by historic and ongoing problems with microbial water quality, leading to beneficial use impairments (BUIs) such as beach postings and closures. In this study, we assessed river and beach sites within the Rouge River watershed, associated stormwater outfalls, and at Rouge Beach. The concentrations ofEscherichia colias well as human- and gull-specific qPCR microbial source tracking (MST) markers were assessed at all sites. A preliminary comparison of digital PCR (dPCR) methodologies for both MST markers was conducted regarding sensitivity and specificity. Within the watershed, the outfalls were found to be a prominent source of human fecal contamination, with two outfalls particularly affected by sewage cross-connections. However, the occurrence of human fecal contamination along Rouge Beach and in the lower portions of the watershed was largely dependent on rain events. Gull fecal contamination was the predominant source of contamination at the beach, particularly during dry weather. The multiplex human/gull dPCR methodology used in this study tended to be more sensitive than the individual quantitative PCR (qPCR) assays, with only a slight decrease in specificity. Both dPCR and qPCR methodologies identified the same predominance of human and gull markers in stormwater and beach locations, respectively; however, the dPCR multiplex assay was more sensitive and capable of detecting fecal contamination that was undetected by qPCR assays. These results demonstrate the dPCR assay used in this study could be a viable tool for MST studies to increase the ability to identify low levels of fecal contamination.IMPORTANCEFecal contamination of recreational water poses a persistent and ongoing problem, particularly in areas of concern around the Great Lakes. The identification of the source(s) of fecal contamination is essential for safeguarding public health as well as guiding remediation efforts; however, fecal contamination may frequently be present at low levels and remain undetectable by certain methodologies. In this study, we utilized microbial source tracking techniques using both quantitative and digital PCR assays to identify sources of contamination. Our results indicated high levels of human fecal contamination within stormwater outfalls, while lower levels were observed throughout the watershed. Additionally, high levels of gull fecal contamination were detected at Rouge Beach, particularly during drier sampling events. Furthermore, our results indicated an increased sensitivity of the digital PCR assay to detect both human and gull contamination, suggesting it could be a viable tool for future microbial source tracking studies.


  • Staley, Zachery R
  • Boyd, Rachel J
  • Shum, Phoenix
  • Edge, Thomas

publication date

  • August 10, 2018