Development and validation of a FISH-based method for the detection and quantification of E. coli and coliform bacteria in water samples

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Monitoring of microbiological contaminants in water supplies requires fast and sensitive methods for the specific detection of indicator organisms or pathogens. We developed a protocol for the simultaneous detection of E. coli and coliform bacteria based on the Fluorescence in situ Hybridization (FISH) technology. This protocol consists of two approaches. The first allows the direct detection of single E. coli and coliform bacterial cells on the filter membranes. The second approach includes incubation of the filter membranes on a nutrient agar plate and subsequent detection of the grown micro-colonies. Both approaches were validated using drinking water samples spiked with pure cultures and naturally contaminated water samples. The effects of heat, chlorine and UV disinfection were also investigated. The micro-colony approach yielded very good results for all samples and conditions tested, and thus can be thoroughly recommended for usage as an alternative method to detect E. coli and coliform bacteria in water samples. However, during this study, some limitations became visible for the single cell approach. The method cannot be applied for water samples which have been disinfected by UV irradiation. In addition, our results indicated that green fluorescent dyes are not suitable to be used with chlorine disinfected samples.

Keywords: coliform bacteria, disinfection, drinking water, E. coli, FISH

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