Microbial source tracking (MST) describes a suite of methods and an investigative strategy for determination of fecal pollution sources in environmental waters that rely on the association of certain fecal microorganisms with a particular host. MST is used to assess recreational water quality and associated human health risk, and total maximum daily load allocations. Many methods rely on signature molecules (markers) such as DNA sequences of host-associated microorganisms. Human sewage pollution is among the greatest concerns for human health due to (1) the known risk of exposure to human waste and (2) the public and regulatory will to reduce sewage pollution; however, methods to identify animal sources are receiving increasing attention as our understanding of zoonotic disease potential improves. Here, we review the performance of MST methods in initial reports and field studies, with particular emphasis on quantitative PCR (qPCR). Relationships among human-associated MST markers, fecal indicator bacteria, pathogens, and human health outcomes are presented along with recommendations for future research. An integrated understanding of the advantages and drawbacks of the many MST methods targeting human sources advanced over the past several decades will benefit managers, regulators, researchers, and other users of this rapidly growing area of environmental microbiology.
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