A pcr-based method for monitoring legionella pneumophila in water samples detects viable but noncultivable legionellae that can recover their cultivability
Legionella pneumophila is the causative agent of Legionnaires' disease. This bacterium is ubiquitous in aqueous environments and uses amoebae as an intracellular replicative niche. Real-time PCR has been developed for rapid detection of Legionella DNA in water samples. In addition to culturable bacteria, this method may also detect dead and viable but noncultivable (VBNC) legionellae. In order to understand the significance of positive PCR results in this setting, we prepared water samples containing known concentrations of L. pneumophila and analyzed them comparatively by means of conventional culture, real-time PCR, viability labeling, and immunodetection (solid-phase cytometry). We also examined the influence of chlorination on the results of the four methods. The different techniques yielded similar results for nonchlorinated water samples but not for chlorinated samples. After treatment for 24 h with 0.5 and 1 ppm chlorine, all cultures were negative, PCR and immunodetection showed about 106 genome units and bacteria/ml, and total-viable-count (TVC) labeling detected 105 and 102 metabolically active bacteria/ml, respectively. Thus, PCR also detected bacteria that were VBNC. The recoverability of VBNC forms was confirmed by 5 days of coculture with Acanthamoeba polyphaga. Therefore, some TVC-positive bacteria were potentially infective. These data show that L. pneumophila PCR detects not only culturable bacteria but also VBNC forms and dead bacterial DNA at low chlorine concentrations.