AIMS: To evaluate the feasibility of bacteriophages as a complementary tool for water quality assessment in surface waters from different parts of the globe. METHODS AND RESULTS: Faecal coliform bacteria, enterococci, spores of sulphite-reducing clostridia, somatic coliphages, F-specific RNA bacteriophages and bacteriophages infecting Bacteroides fragilis were determined by standardized methods in raw sewage and in 392 samples of river water from 22 sampling sites in 10 rivers in Argentina, Colombia, France and Spain, which represent very different climatic and socio-economic conditions. The results showed that the indicators studied maintained the same relative densities in the raw sewage from the different areas. Classifying the river water samples according to the content of faecal coliform bacteria, it can be observed that the relative densities of the different bacterial indicators and bacteriophages changed according to the concentration of faecal coliform bacteria. There was a relative increase in the densities of all groups of bacteriophages and sulphite-reducing clostridia with respect to faecal coliforms and enterococci in the samples with low counts of faecal coliform bacteria. CONCLUSIONS: The numbers of bacterial indicators and bacteriophages were similar in the different geographical areas studied. Once released in rivers, the persistence of the different micro-organisms differed significantly. Bacteriophages and spores of sulphite-reducing clostridia persisted longer than faecal coliforms and enterococci. SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPACT OF THE STUDY: Bacteriophages in river water samples provide additional information to that provided by bacteria about the fate of faecal micro-organisms in river water. The easy, fast and cheap methods for phage determination are feasible both in industrialized and developing countries.
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