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J Appl Microbiol. 2002;93(1):69-76.

Escherichia coli survival in groundwater and effluent measured using a combination of propidium iodide and the green fluorescent protein.

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CSIRO Land and Water, Floreat, Western Australia, Nedlands, Western Australia.



The aim of this study was to deterimine the survival of an enteric bacterium in anaerobic groundwater and effluent microcosms using the green fluorescent protein (GFP) marker gene in combination with the viability indicator propidium iodide (PI).


The pEGFP vector (Clontech) was transformed into Escherichia coli DH5alpha and was stable for at least 100 generations of growth in nonselective medium at 28 degrees C and 37 degrees C. Using an epifluorescent microscope, GFP cells could be detected under blue light (450-490 nm) and the numbers of PI-positive GFPs could be detected under green light (530-560 nm). GFP-tagged E. coli could be detected for at least 132 d in sterilized water microcosms. GFP fluorescence was not lost from the culturable cell population for the duration of the experiment. However, a slow decline in the number of GFP-fluorescent cells in sterilized groundwater was observed. Escherichia coli die-off and loss of green fluorescence was more rapid in nonsterilized waters than in sterilized. Viable numbers of the GFP-tagged E. coli determined by PI counterstaining were compatible with numbers of colony-forming units.


The long-term survival of E. coli and maintainance of GFP-conferred fluorescence in these cells was demonstrated in both groundwater and effluent, under sterilized conditions. However, severe starvation and/or the presence of indigenous microorganisms were found to be factors affecting the maintenance of fluorescence in dead or dying cells.


This study demonstrates the successful application of PI with GFP-tagging to monitor long-term bacterial survival in nutrient-limited conditions and mixed microbial populations.

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