The presence of Escherichia coli in water is used as an indicator of fecal contamination, but recent reports indicate that soil populations can also be detected in tropical, subtropical, and some temperate environments. In this study, we report that viable E. coli populations were repeatedly isolated from northern temperate soils in three Lake Superior watersheds from October 2003 to October 2004. Seasonal variation in the population density of soilborne E. coli was observed; the greatest cell densities, up to 3 × 103 CFU/g soil, were found in the summer to fall (June to October), and the lowest numbers, <1 CFU/g soil, occurred during the winter to spring months (February to May). Horizontal, fluorophore-enhanced repetitive extragenic palindromic PCR (HFERP) DNA fingerprint analyses indicated that identical soilborne E. coli genotypes, those with >92% similarity values, overwintered in frozen soil and were present over time. Soilborne E. coli strains had HFERP DNA fingerprints that were unique to specific soils and locations, suggesting that these E. coli strains became naturalized, autochthonous members of the soil microbial community. In laboratory studies, naturalized E. coli strains had the ability to grow and replicate to high cell densities, up to 4.2 × 105 CFU/g soil, in nonsterile soils when incubated at 30 or 37°C and survived longer than 1 month when soil temperatures were <25°C. To our knowledge, this is the first report of the growth of naturalized E. coli in nonsterile, nonamended soils. The presence of significant populations of naturalized populations of E. coli in temperate soils may confound the use of this bacterium as an indicator of fecal contamination.
Applied and Environmental Microbiology
Minnesota Water Research Digital Library
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