Molecular characterisation of environmental enterococci derived from water samples and assessment of associated public health hazards

Rathnayake, Irani Udeshika (2012) Molecular characterisation of environmental enterococci derived from water samples and assessment of associated public health hazards. PhD by Publication, Queensland University of Technology.


Enterococci are versatile Gram-positive bacteria that can survive under extreme conditions. Most enterococci are non-virulent and found in the gastrointestinal tract of humans and animals. Other strains are opportunistic pathogens that contribute to a large number of nosocomial infections globally. Epidemiological studies demonstrated a direct relationship between the density of enterococci in surface waters and the risk of swimmer-associated gastroenteritis. The distribution of infectious enterococcal strains from the hospital environment or other sources to environmental water bodies through sewage discharge or other means, could increase the prevalence of these strains in the human population. Environmental water quality studies may benefit from focusing on a subset of Enterococcus spp. that are consistently associated with sources of faecal pollution such as domestic sewage, rather than testing for the entire genus. E. faecalis and E. faecium are potentially good focal species for such studies, as they have been consistently identified as the dominant Enterococcus spp. in human faeces and sewage. On the other hand enterococcal infections are predominantly caused by E. faecalis and E. faecium. The characterisation of E. faecalis and E. faecium is important in studying their population structures, particularly in environmental samples. In developing and implementing rapid, robust molecular genotyping techniques, it is possible to more accurately establish the relationship between human and environmental enterococci. Of particular importance, is to determine the distribution of high risk enterococcal clonal complexes, such as E. faecium clonal complex 17 and E. faecalis clonal complexes 2 and 9 in recreational waters. These clonal complexes are recognized as particularly pathogenic enterococcal genotypes that cause severe disease in humans globally.

The Pimpama-Coomera watershed is located in South East Queensland, Australia and was investigated in this study mainly because it is used intensively for agriculture and recreational purposes and has a strong anthropogenic impact. The primary aim of this study was to develop novel, universally applicable, robust, rapid and cost effective genotyping methods which are likely to yield more definitive results for the routine monitoring of E. faecalis and E. faecium, particularly in environmental water sources. To fullfill this aim, new genotyping methods were developed based on the interrogation of highly informative single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) located in housekeeping genes of both E. faecalis and E. faecium. SNP genotyping was successfully applied in field investigations of the Coomera watershed, South-East Queensland, Australia. E. faecalis and E. faecium isolates were grouped into 29 and 23 SNP profiles respectively. This study showed the high longitudinal diversity of E. faecalis and E. faecium over a period of two years, and both human-related and human-specific SNP profiles were identified. Furthermore, 4.25% of E. faecium strains isolated from water was found to correspond to the important clonal complex-17 (CC17). Strains that belong to CC17 cause the majority of hospital outbreaks and clinical infections globally. Of the six sampling sites of the Coomera River, Paradise Point had the highest number of human-related and human-specific E. faecalis and E. faecium SNP profiles.

The secondary aim of this study was to determine the antibiotic-resistance profiles and virulence traits associated with environmental E. faecalis and E. faecium isolates compared to human pathogenic E. faecalis and E. faecium isolates. This was performed to predict the potential health risks associated with coming into contact with these strains in the Coomera watershed. In general, clinical isolates were found to be more resistant to all the antibiotics tested compared to water isolates and they harbored more virulence traits. Multi-drug resistance was more prevalent in clinical isolates (71.18% of E. faecalis and 70.3 % of E. faecium) compared to water isolates (only 5.66 % E. faecium). However, tetracycline, gentamicin, ciprofloxacin and ampicillin resistance was observed in water isolates. The virulence gene esp was the most prevalent virulence determinant observed in clinical isolates (67.79% of E. faecalis and 70.37 % of E. faecium), and this gene has been described as a human-specific marker used for microbial source tracking (MST). The presence of esp in water isolates (16.36% of E. faecalis and 19.14% of E. faecium) could be indicative of human faecal contamination in these waterways.

Finally, in order to compare overall gene expression between environmental and clinical strains of E. faecalis, a comparative gene hybridization study was performed. The results of this investigation clearly demonstrated the up-regulation of genes associated with pathogenicity in E. faecalis isolated from water. The expression study was performed at physiological temperatures relative to ambient temperatures. The up-regulation of virulence genes demonstrates that environmental strains of E. faecalis can pose an increased health risk which can lead to serious disease, particularly if these strains belong to the virulent CC17 group.

The genotyping techniques developed in this study not only provide a rapid, robust and highly discriminatory tool to characterize E. faecalis and E. faecium, but also enables the efficient identification of virulent enterococci that are distributed in environmental water sources.

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ID Code: 52631
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD by Publication)
Supervisor: Huygens, Flavia & Hargreaves, Megan
Keywords: Enterococcus faecalis, Enterococcus faecium, genotyping, SNPs, real-time PCR, antibiotic resistance, virulence traits, gene expression,
Divisions: Past > Schools > Cell & Molecular Biosciences
Past > QUT Faculties & Divisions > Faculty of Science and Technology
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 20 Jul 2012 05:26
Last Modified: 10 Sep 2015 02:15

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