17. January 2018
Faecal Pollution – DNA Uncovers Culprit
Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences, Technische Universität Wien and the Medical University of Vienna present the findings of the largest water hygiene study of its kind.
Krems, 17 January 2018 – Despite wastewater management and treatment plants, human waste remains the main source of microbial faecal pollution in the river Danube. This is the most notable finding of a comprehensive analysis of faecal pollution in the Danube. The study used a new molecular genetics method that enables the clear differentiation of human microbial faecal pollution from that of animal origin. The currently published study was carried out with the major participation of the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences under the auspices of the Interuniversity Cooperation Centre for Water & Health in Austria.
CSI and forensics can be used to uncover not only serial killers but also the cause of water pollution – when it comes to faecal contamination at least. A research team led by Professor Andreas Farnleitner from the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences (KL) and the Technische Universität Wien (TU Wien) has succeeded in demonstrating this for the river Danube. A refined molecular genetics method, which enables the differentiation of human and animal faecal matter based on bacterial DNA and was developed jointly by Professor Farnleiter and his colleagues from the Interuniversity Cooperation Centre for Water & Health (ICC Water & Health), played a crucial role in the study. This would not have been possible using the standard methods available up to now and is a particularly important factor when it comes to identifying the source of acute water pollution.
Human or Animal Origin
“Rivers are often used for drinking-water extraction,” explains Professor Farnleitner, who is head of the Water Quality and Health Division at KL. “So faecal contamination poses a potential health risk. The standard detection methods are based on the cultivation of faecal indicator bacteria and do not provide any information about whether the faecal matter is human or animal in origin. As opposed to this, the genetic method we used in the Danube study provides information on this very point.”
The method is based on the genetic markers of specific bacterial species (Bacteriodetes) found in human and animal excreta. Based on their typical DNA sequences, these markers enable conclusions to be drawn about whether faecal contamination originates from humans, ruminants or pigs, for example. The concentration of host-associated Bacteriodetes genetic faecal markers in the Danube is low, thus Professor Farnleiter’s team amplified it using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method so that they could then identify the source and categorise it as originating from humans, ruminants or pigs.
“The result was unequivocal: the microbial faecal pollution found along a 2,580-kilometre stretch of the river Danube was predominantly human in origin. The contribution of grazing livestock and intensive pig farming along the river to the pollution was comparatively marginal in all locations,” explains Professor Alexander Kirschner from the Institute for Hygiene and Applied Immunology at the Medical University of Vienna, who coordinated the study jointly with Professor Farnleitner. “This is significant because contamination from human sources is potentially more dangerous than that originating from animals. In general, the species of pathogens contained in human excreta pose a higher risk of infection to humans than those found in animal waste. However – and it is important to stress this – thanks to the numerous water protection measures carried out in the Danube, it is extremely clean for a river of its size.”
The research team succeeded in demonstrating the practical application of the new method to a major international river and catchment area. The study, which began in 2013, was mainly carried out by scientists from the Danube region in the context of the Joint Danube Survey 2013 and coordinated by the International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River (ICPDR). In addition to the aforementioned ICC Water & Health, experts from the Medical University of Vienna and the TU Wien were involved on behalf of Austria from the outset. Samples were taken at over 70 locations on the Danube – from both the central reaches of the river and close to the banks. The microbiological water quality was also monitored for a period of one year at three selected extraction points. All samples were analysed using both the standard methods based on indicator bacteria and molecular biology methods for the detection of genetic markers. The further analysis of the 4,000-plus samples was carried out with the team from KL, which also made a major contribution to the evaluation and interpretation of the data in the context of the ICC Water & Health.
Thanks to the large volumes of data recorded on the spatial and temporal distribution of microbial faecal pollution in the Danube and the identification of their sources, the studies carried out as part of the JDS 2013 project are the most extensive of their kind.
Original publication: Kirschner AKT, Reischer GH, Jakwerth S, Savio D, Ixenmaier S, Toth E, Sommer R, Mach RL, Linke R, Eiler A, Kolarevic S, Farnleitner AH (2017) Multiparametric monitoring of microbial faecal pollution reveals the dominance of human contamination along the whole Danube River, Water Research 124 543 – 555, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2017.07.052
About Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences
Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences (KL) sees itself as a pioneer for innovation in medical and health sciences education and research, and a catalyst for groundbreaking work which will benefit society at large. KL focuses on providing an interdisciplinary curriculum with a strong international focus, which supplements the courses typically offered at Austria’s public universities. Its Bologna-compliant bachelor and master programmes are an important aspect of the university’s flexible approach to delivering education designed to meet the needs of students and the requirements of the job market. Research concentrates on niche fields in bridge disciplines such as biomedical engineering, psychodynamics and psychology, as well as topics including water quality and related health issues. Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences was established in 2013 and is accredited by the Agency for Quality Assurance and Accreditation Austria (AQ Austria).
About the Interuniversity Cooperation Centre for Water & Health
The Interuniversity Cooperation Centre for Water & Health (ICC Water & Health) is a scientific platform and expert partner on topics concerning water quality and its impact on human health. The ICC is dedicated to the development of innovative concepts for the assessment of water quality, new microbiology and molecular biology methods, the feasibility assessment of physical and chemical water treatment methods, and numerical models for estimating the risks of infection and disease associated with water use. The insights gained are used for the extrapolation of effective and sustainable management measures for the protection of health. The ICC was founded by the Technische Universität Wien and the Medical University of Vienna in 2010 and was able to be established on a long-term basis thanks to the competitive research funding provided by the Federal Ministry for Digital, Business and Enterprise (BMWFW). The Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences (KL) became a member of the ICC Water & Health in 2017. KL is now an official part of the research platform.
Prof. Andreas Farnleitner
Water Quality and Health Division
Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences
3500 Krems an der Donau, Austria
M + 43 (0)664 / 605 88 22 44
Karl Landsteiner University of Health Science
Communication, PR and marketing (head)
3500 Krems an der Donau, Austria
T +43 2732 72090 231
M +43 664 5056211
Copy Editing & Distribution
PR&D – Public Relations for Research & Education
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44