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J Appl Microbiol. 2005;99(5):1090-8.

Formation of nonculturable Escherichia coli in drinking water.

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Section of Environmental Engineering, Department of Life Sciences, Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark.



To examine whether incubation of Escherichia coli in nondisinfected drinking water result in development of cells that are not detectable using standard procedures but maintain a potential for metabolic activity and cell division.


Survival and detectability of four different E. coli strains were studied using drinking water microcosms and samples from contaminated drinking water wells. Recovery of E. coli was compared using different cultivation-dependent methods, fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) using specific oligonucleotide probes, direct viable counts (DVC), and by enumeration of gfp-tagged E. coli (green fluorescent protein, GFP). Two levels of stress responses were observed after incubation of E. coli in nondisinfected drinking water: (i) the presence of cells that were not detected using standard cultivation methods but could be cultivated after gentle resuscitation on nonselective nutrient-rich media, and (ii) the presence of cells that responded to nutrient addition but could only be detected by cultivation-independent methods (DVC, FISH and GFP). Collectively, the experiments demonstrated that incubation for 20-60 days in nondisinfected drinking water resulted in detection of only 0.7-5% of the initial E. coli population using standard cultivation methods, whereas 1-20% could be resuscitated to a culturable state, and 17-49% could be clearly detected using cultivation-independent methods.


Resuscitation of stressed E. coli on nonselective nutrient-rich media increased cell counts in drinking water using both traditional (CFU), and cultivation-independent methods (DVC, FISH and GFP). The cultivation-independent methods resulted in detection of 10-20 times more E. coli than the traditional methods. The results indicate that a subpopulation of substrate-responsive but apparent nonculturable E. coli may develop in drinking water during long-term starvation survival.


The existence of substrate-responsive but nonculturable cells should be considered when evaluating the survival potential of E. coli in nondisinfected drinking water.

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