Characterization of Fecal DNA Sources along a College Brook Transect

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John Bucci UNH - Department of Natural Resources & the Environment Principal Investigator
Wilfred Wollheim UNH - Department of Natural Resources & the Environment Partner
Richard Carey UNH - Water Systems Analysis Group Partner
David Cedarholm Town of Durham, New Hampshire Partner
Semra Aytur UNH - Department of Health Management and Policy Partner

Students Involved:

Andrew Walant University of New Hampshire

We would like to request research funds in order to complete a pilot project to develop a microbial source tracking (MST) method. This project is being conducted along College Brook, which is a tributary of the Oyster River Watershed in Durham, New Hampshire. In partnership with water quality scientists from the University of New Hampshire (UNH EPSCoR) and local end-users (e.g., Town of Durham and the Oyster River Watershed Group), we have generated an initial dataset that identifies human fecal DNA as a source of microbial waste along a section of the stream. This stretch of College Brook, with its recent sewer line installation, serves as an ideal transect site for this pilot project, enabling us to confirm the presence and quantification of human fecal waste using our MST method.

The stream known as College Brook runs through the UNH campus and drains to the Oyster River and into the Great Bay, N.H. This particular water body has been suspected of having a human waste problem. This is supported by evidence of high bacterial levels, which is linked to fecal pollution. Our objectives include identification and quantification of a human DNA fecal source at its suspected location, using MST. In order to complete this pilot study, we need to collect and analyze additional samples from study sites at two more time points between August 28 and November 1, 2013. The initial results from the June sampling have proven to be useful to our partners (listed below).

Completion of our MST analysis for this study is important since the results will serve as a method to inform mitigation efforts by more accurately identifying human fecal waste that drive above standard bacteria levels in watersheds such as the Oyster River Watershed. For example, not only will this MST approach help to confirm sewer leaks, it can be used in conjunction with water quality programs to detect septic system failure in residential areas as well as other animal sources (e.g., bovine, canine) associated with agricultural and recreational land use.

The completion of this study will provide valuable preliminary data for a larger proposal to NHSG or other agencies. For example, last year we submitted a NOAA/COCA application, which received favorable reviews and we plan to develop a more competitive proposal for resubmission.

2014 Accomplishments

NHSG researchers use genetic biomarker to detect human waste DNA in a Seacoast stream
Pollution from human waste in coastal watersheds represents an ecosystem and public health problem. College Brook, a tributary of the Oyster River, runs directly through the UNH-Durham campus and is suspected of having non-point nutrient sources that include wastewater. In 2014, with funding provided by a N.H. Sea Grant development grant, researchers used a genetic biomarker for gut mitochondria DNA to identify whether or not contamination from human feces is occurring in stream surface water. The results indicated that human fecal DNA was present in College Brook near a new sewer line installation. The innovative use of this molecular technology will help resource managers by providing new information about nutrient sources in the stream and supporting best management practices with respect to wastewater.

NHSG research on human waste contamination in a stream leads to two related studies
Coastal watersheds face a variety of challenges associated with pollution, including human fecal contamination that impacts public health. With funding provided by a N.H. Sea Grant development grant, researchers detected human fecal DNA in a small stream in Durham, N.H., near a new sewer line installation. In 2014, this research led to the development of two additional studies in the Oyster River sub-watershed that focus on nutrient variability during storm events and fecal contamination within a larger area of the watershed. Additional research based on the original study will offer a broader perspective on human fecal contamination in the watershed for improved wastewater management.