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Environ Sci Technol. 2011 May 1;45(9):4038-45. doi: 10.1021/es103659s. Epub 2011 Apr 5.

Hypothesis-driven approach for the identification of fecal pollution sources in water resources.

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Research Group Environmental Microbiology and Molecular Ecology, Division Gene Technology and Applied Biochemistry, Institute of Chemical Engineering, Vienna University of Technology, Vienna, Austria.


Water resource management must strive to link catchment information with water quality monitoring. The present study attempted this for the field of microbial fecal source tracking (MST). A fecal pollution source profile based on catchment data (e.g., prevalence of fecal sources) was used to formulate a hypothesis about the dominant sources of pollution in an Austrian mountainous karst spring catchment. This allowed a statistical definition of methodical requirements necessary for an informed choice of MST methods. The hypothesis was tested in a 17-month investigation of spring water quality. The study followed a nested sampling design in order to cover the hydrological and pollution dynamics of the spring and to assess effects such as differential persistence between parameters. Genetic markers for the potential fecal sources as well as microbiological, hydrological, and chemo-physical parameters were measured. The hypothesis that ruminant animals were the dominant sources of fecal pollution in the catchment was clearly confirmed. It was also shown that the concentration of ruminant markers in feces was equally distributed in different ruminant source groups. The developed approach provides a tool for careful decision-making in MST study design and might be applied on various types of catchments and pollution situations.

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