Next generation sequencing reveals distinct fecal pollution signatures in aquatic sediments across gradients of anthropogenic influence

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Gian Marco Luna *
Grazia Marina Quero
Laura Perini
(*) Corresponding Author:
Gian Marco Luna |


Aquatic sediments are the repository of a variety of anthropogenic pollutants, including bacteria of fecal origin, that reach the aquatic environment from a variety of sources. Although fecal bacteria can survive for long periods of time in aquatic sediments, the microbiological quality of sediments is almost entirely neglected when performing quality assessments of aquatic ecosystems. Here we investigated the relative abundance, patterns and diversity of fecal bacterial populations in two coastal areas in the Northern Adriatic Sea (Italy): the Po river prodelta (PRP, an estuarine area receiving significant contaminant discharge from one of the largest European rivers) and the Lagoon of Venice (LV, a transitional environment impacted by a multitude of anthropogenic stressors). From both areas, several indicators of fecal and sewage contamination were determined in the sediments using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) of 16S rDNA amplicons. At both areas, fecal contamination was high, with fecal bacteria accounting for up to 3.96% and 1.12% of the sediment bacterial assemblages in PRP and LV, respectively. The magnitude of the fecal signature was highest in the PRP site, highlighting the major role of the Po river in spreading microbial contaminants into the adjacent coastal area. In the LV site, fecal pollution was highest in the urban area, and almost disappeared when moving to the open sea. Our analysis revealed a large number of fecal Operational Taxonomic Units (OTU, 960 and 181 in PRP and LV, respectively) and showed a different fecal signature in the two areas, suggesting a diverse contribution of human and non-human sources of contamination. These results highlight the potential of NGS techniques to gain insights into the origin and fate of different fecal bacteria populations in aquatic sediments.

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