Environmental adaptation of E. coli within private groundwater sources in southeastern Ontario: Implications for groundwater quality monitoring and human health
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Groundwater quality monitoring typically employs testing for the presence of E. coli as a fecal indicator of recent ingress of human or animal fecal material. The efficacy of fecal indicator organisms is based on the primary criteria that the organism does not reproduce in the aquatic environment. However, recent studies have reported that E. coli may proliferate (i.e., has adapted to) in the external environment, including soil and surface water. To date, the presence of environmentally-adapted E. coli in groundwater has not been examined. The current study employed Clermont phylotyping and the presence of six accessory genes to identify the likely presence of adapted E. coli in private groundwater sources. E. coli isolates (n = 325) from 76 contaminated private water wells located in a southeastern Ontario watershed were compared with geographically analogous human and animal fecal E. coli isolates (n = 234). Cryptic clades III-V, a well-described environmentally-adapted Escherichia population, were identified in three separate groundwater wells, one of which exclusively comprised this adapted population. Dimensionality reduction (via Principal Component Analysis) was used to develop an "E. coli adaptation model", comprising three distinct components (groundwater, animal feces, human feces) and suggests adaptation occurs frequently in the groundwater environment. Model findings indicate that 23/76 (30.3%) wells had an entirely adapted community. Accordingly, the use of E. coli as a FIO returned a false positive result in these instances, while an additional 23/76 (30.3%) wells exhibited some evidence of adaptation (i.e., not all isolates were adapted) representing an over-estimate of the magnitude (concentration) of contamination. Study findings highlight the need to further characterize environmentally-adapted E. coli in the groundwater environment and the potential implications with respect to water quality policy, legislation and determinants of human health risk both regionally and internationally.
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