Water Resources Research Act Program

Details for Project ID 2014VI249B

Quantification and Molecular Typing of Escherichia coli from watersheds above Brewers Bay and UVI, St. Thomas

Institute: Virgin Islands
Year Established: 2014 Start Date: 2014-03-01 End Date: 2015-02-28
Total Federal Funds: $15,692 Total Non-Federal Funds: Not available

Principal Investigators: Jennilee Robinson, Jennilee Robinson

Abstract: Factors that influence water quality include but are not limited to rising temperatures, increase of rainfall, animals and human waste, and run-off from roads as well as from septic tanks in nearby neighborhoods. When such containments are washed into the guts flowing downhill following heavy rainfall they pose a health risk, especially when the water collects and stands, allowing bacteria and other pathogens to grow and accumulate. In the US Virgin Islands, <50 inches of average annual rain falls in short-lived, intense downpours with heaviest storms corresponding with the late summer-winter hurricane season. Most storm water runs quickly down the islands’ steep hillsides, influenced by predominately thin topsoil and increasing land development. The water that collects must be managed carefully to avoid contamination from septic tanks and other sources of pollution. Another notable factor is that most residences and commercial properties rely on rooftop water collection, as well as septic tanks and leech systems for plumbing instead of public water and sewer systems. Water quality can be measured by the presence of certain bacterial fecal indicators i.e. enterococcus and coliforms. Students in summer and fall University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) BIO 301 courses, “Microbiology for the Health Sciences” began research in June of 2013, to monitor Brewers Bay on UVI’s St. Thomas campus, for the presence of two fecal indicator bacteria, fecal coliform and entercoccus. Our data supports our initial hypothesis that the indicator bacteria increase in the beach water after a large rainfall. More research is needed to understand the fluctuation of bacteria in the water over time and to identify strategies for improving the both fresh and marine water quality and reducing fecal contamination. Of particular importance, a certain species of fecal coliform, Escherichia coli, are increasingly resistant to antibiotics and causing disease with high morbidity and mortality rates worldwide. Genes associated with virulence in this organism can be detected and quantified using an assay called PCR. We propose to address the following questions “Does the transient fresh water that collects in guts of the from residential as well as industrial watersheds above Brewer’s Bay contain large numbers Escherichia coli and other fecal coliform bacteria?” and “Whether E. coli isolates contain genetic markers associated with either mutualism and commensalism, or disease in humans?” More specifically, we plan to determine if bacterial isolates encode genes involved in increased virulence or antibiotic resistance. We hypothesize that water collected from watersheds with increased development will have higher levels of fecal coliform bacteria and that isolates from heavily polluted water will encode genetic factors involved in antibiotic resistance and ability to cause disease. Our current team of researchers consists primarily of UVI undergraduate students either volunteer, or enrolled in courses including BIO301 and BIO495 (directed independent research). We include both biology and nursing majors, and are led by a biology professor. Therefore, this is a unique student-driven research project offering numerous opportunities for undergraduate research experience, development and training. We selected watersheds surrounding the university campus for our study location because this area is of immediate concern to UVI students. Regular monitoring of fecal coliforms in the fresh water running downhill through the UVI campus will allow us to identify potential uphill sources of contamination, as well as assess the health risks posed by E. coli in fresh water on the UVI campus.