Bucci, Vanni, Marin Vulić, Xiaodan Ruan, and Ferdi L. Hellweger, 2011. Population Dynamics of Escherichia coli in Surface Water. Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA) 47(3):611-619. DOI: 10.1111/j.1752-1688.2011.00528.x
Abstract: Present models of the fate of enteric bacteria in surface water usually assume simple first-order decay. However, observed decay kinetics are typically biphasic and there is increasing evidence for growth in the ambient environment. These features are similar to the stationary phase of long-term batch cultures, where the dynamics are the result of repeated cycles of population takeovers by Growth Advantage in Stationary Phase (GASP) mutants able to scavenge nutrients released from dead cells. We investigated the possible role of this mechanism (i.e., growth of an adapted subpopulation) in surface water using laboratory experiments with various strains of Escherichia coli in different types of water. Addition of ampicillin (which only kills dividing cells) to these cultures caused a decrease in the total cell density, demonstrating the presence of a growing subpopulation. Furthermore, long-term survivors from surface water cultures outcompete naïve cells and take over the population in surface water. This growth advantage is heritable (i.e., aged strains were isolated from a single cell) and consistent with the GASP mechanism, although the responsible loci were not identified. Our results show that E. coli populations in surface water are dynamic and consist of dying naïve cells and growing surface water adapted cells. These results can explain the apparent biphasic decay pattern observed in laboratory experiments. This mechanism may also be important in the ambient environment.