Inactivation of indicator micro-organisms from various sources of faecal contamination in seawater and freshwater


R.T. Noble, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Institute of Marine Sciences, 3431 Arendell St., Morehead City, NC 28557, USA(e-mail:


Aim:  The survival of indicator micro-organisms in aquatic systems is affected by both biotic and abiotic factors. Much of the past research on this topic has been conducted using laboratory-generated cultures of indicator bacteria. For this study, we used natural sources of faecal contamination as inoculants into environmental water samples, thereby representing the wide diversity of organisms likely to be found in faecal contamination.

Methods and Results:  Rates of inactivation of water quality indicators, total coliforms (TC), Escherichia coli, enterococci (EC) and F+-specific coliphage were studied in three experiments using inoculants of sewage influent, sewage effluent and urban storm drain run-off. Effects of temperature, nutrients, total suspended solids, bacterial load and solar irradiation were studied in fresh and seawater matrices. Results demonstrated that temperature and solar irradiation had significant effects upon rates of inactivation (anova, P < 0·001). Inactivation rates were similar, regardless of the inoculant type. EC degraded the slowest in the dark with T90s of 115–121 and 144–177 h at 20 and 14°C, respectively. When incubated in sunlight, EC was inactivated significantly more rapidly than either E. coli or F+-specific coliphage (P < 0·001).

Conclusions:  Inactivation of indicator bacteria is not dependent upon the original source of contamination. Inactivation rates of indicator bacteria were similar in fresh and seawater matrices. However, EC degraded more rapidly in sunlight than E. coli.

Significance and Impact of the Study:  This study suggests that the source of faecal contamination is not an important factor to inactivation rates of indicator bacteria. However, rates of inactivation of indicator bacteria are likely system specific.