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Int J Food Microbiol. 2004 May 1;92(3):275-87.

Potentially pathogenic features of heterotrophic plate count bacteria isolated from treated and untreated drinking water.

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Department of Medical Virology, University of Pretoria, P.O. Box 2034, Pretoria 0001, South Africa.


Heterotrophic plate counts (HPCs) are commonly used to assess the general microbiological quality of drinking water. Drinking water quality specifications worldwide recommend HPC limits from 100 to 500 cfu ml(-1). A number of recent studies revealed evidence that these bacteria may not be as harmless as generally accepted. It appears that immuno-compromised individuals are particularly at risk. This would include the very young and very old patients with diseases such as AIDS and patients on therapy for purposes such as organ transplantation and cancer treatment. In this study, 339 bacterial colonies were isolated at random from selected treated and untreated drinking water in South Africa using routine heterotrophic plate count tests. In a first step to screen for potentially pathogenic properties, 188 (55.5%) of the isolates showed alpha- or beta-haemolysis on human- and horse-blood agar media. Subsequent analysis of the haemolytic isolates for enzymatic properties associated with pathogenicity revealed the presence of chondroitinase in 5.3% of the isolates, coagulase in 16.0%, DNase in 60.6%, elastase in 33.0%, fibrinolysin in 53.7%, gelatinase in 62.2%, hyaluronidase in 21.3%, lecithinase in 47.9%, lipase in 54.8% and proteinase in 64.4%. Fluorescein and pyocyanin were not produced by any of the isolates. Among the haemolytic isolates, 77.7% were resistant to oxacillin 1 microg, 59.6% to penicillin G 2 units, 47.3% to penicillin G 10 units, 54.3% to ampicillin 10 microg and 43.1% to ampicillin 25 microg. Cell culture studies revealed that 96% of haemolytic isolates were cytotoxic to HEp-2 cells, and 98.9% of the 181 cytotoxic isolates adhered to HEp-2 or Caco-2 cells. HEp-2 cells were invaded by 43.6%, and Caco-2 cells by 49.7%, of the 181 cytotoxic isolates. The invasion index on HEp-2 cells ranged from 1.9 x 10(-1) to 8.9 x 10(-6), whereas the invasion index on Caco-2 cells varied between 7.7 x 10(-2) and 8.3 x 10(-6). The most commonly isolated genera with these potentially pathogenic features were Aeromonas, Acinetobacter, Aureobacterium, Bacillus, Chryseobacterium, Corynebacterium, Klebsiella, Moraxella, Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus, Tsukamurella and Vibrio. The results obtained in this study support earlier findings on potentially pathogenic features of bacteria detected by routine HPCs on drinking water. These findings are in agreement with some epidemiological studies, which indicated an association between HPCs in drinking water and the incidence of gastroenteritis in consumers. However, the extent of the health risk concerned needs to be defined in more detail for meaningful revision of quality guidelines for HPCs in drinking water.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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