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Aquatic Microbiology

Aquatic microbiology

Aquatic microbiology is the science that deals with microscopic living organisms in fresh or salt water systems. While aquatic microbiology can encompass all microorganisms , including microscopic plants and animals, it more commonly refers to the study of bacteria, viruses, and fungi and their relation to other organisms in the aquatic environment .

Bacteria are quite diverse in nature . The scientific classification of bacteria divides them into 19 major groups based on their shape, cell structure, staining properties (used in the laboratory for identification), and metabolic functions. Bacteria occur in many sizes as well ranging from 0.1 micrometer to greater than 500 micrometers. Some are motile and have flagella, which are tail-like structures used for movement.

Although soil is the most common habitat of fungi, they are also found in aquatic environments. Aquatic fungi are collectively called water molds or aquatic Phycomycetes. They are found on the surface of decaying plant and animal matter in ponds and streams. Some fungi are parasitic and prey on algae and protozoa.

Viruses are the smallest group of microorganisms and usually are viewed only with the aid of an electron microscope. They are disease-causing organisms that are very different than bacteria, fungi, and other cellular life-forms. Viruses are infectious nucleic acid enclosed within a coat of protein. They penetrate host cells and use the nucleic acid of other cells to replicate.

Bacteria, viruses, and fungi are widely distributed throughout aquatic environments. They can be found in fresh water rivers, lakes, and streams, in the surface waters and sediments of the world's oceans, and even in hot springs. They have even been found supporting diverse communities at hydrothermal vents in the depths of the oceans.

Microorganisms living in these diverse environments must deal with a wide range of physical conditions, and each has specific adaptations to live in the particular place it calls home. For example, some have adapted to live in fresh waters with very low salinity , while others live in the saltiest parts of the ocean. Some must deal with the harsh cold of arctic waters, while those in hot springs are subjected to intense heat. In addition, aquatic microorganisms can be found living in environments where there are extremes in other physical parameters such as pressure, sunlight, organic substances, dissolved gases, and water clarity.

Aquatic microorganisms obtain nutrition in a variety of ways. For example, some bacteria living near the surface of either fresh or marine waters, where there is often abundant sunlight, are able to produce their own food through the process of photosynthesis . Bacteria living at hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor where there is no sunlight can produce their own food through a process known as chemosynthesis , which depends on preformed organic carbon as an energy source. Many other microorganisms are not able to produce their own food. Rather, they obtain necessary nutrition from the breakdown of organic matter such as dead organisms.

Aquatic microorganisms play a vital role in the cycling of nutrients within their environment, and thus are a crucial part of the food chain/web . Many microorganisms obtain their nutrition by breaking down organic matter in dead plants and animals. As a result of this process of decay, nutrients are released in a form usable by plants. These aquatic microorganisms are especially important in the cycling of the nutrients nitrogen , phosphorus , and carbon. Without this recycling , plants would have few, if any, organic nutrients to use for growth.

In addition to breaking down organic matter and recycling it into a form of nutrients that plants can use, many of the microorganisms become food themselves. There are many types of animals that graze on bacteria and fungi. For example, some deposit-feeding marine worms ingest sediments and digest numerous bacteria and fungi found there, later expelling the indigestible sediments. Therefore, these microorganisms are intimate members of the food web in at least two ways.

Humans have taken advantage of the role these microorganisms play in nutrient cycles. At sewage treatment plants, microscopic bacteria are cultured and then used to break down human wastes. However, in addition to the beneficial uses of some aquatic microorganisms, others may cause problems for people because they are pathogens, which can cause serious diseases. For example, viruses such as Salmonella typhi, S. paratyphi, and the Norwalk virus are found in water contaminated by sewage can cause illness. Fecal coliform (E. coli ) bacteria and Enterococcus bacteria are two types of microorganisms that are used to indicate the presence of disease causing microorganisms in aquatic environments.

[Marci L. Bortman ]

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Water Microbiology

Water Microbiology


Water microbiology refers to the study of the microorganisms that live in water, or which can be transported from one habitat to another by water.

Water can support the growth of many types of microorganisms. This can be advantageous. For example, the chemical activities of certain strains of yeasts provide us with beer and bread. As well, the growth of some bacteria in contaminated water can help digest the poisons from the water.

However, the presence of other disease causing microbes in water is unhealthy and even life threatening. For example, bacteria that live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other warm blooded animals, such as Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Shigella, and Vibrio, can contaminate water if feces enters the water. Contamination of drinking water with a type of Escherichia coli known as O157:H7 can be fatal. The contamination of the municipal water supply of Walkerton, Ontario, Canada in the summer of 2000 by strain O157:H7 sickened 2,000 people and killed seven people.

The intestinal tract of warm-blooded animals also contains viruses that can contaminate water and cause disease. Examples include rotavirus, enteroviruses, and coxsackievirus.

Another group of microbes of concern in water microbiology are protozoa. The two protozoa of the most concern are Giardia and Cryptosporidium. They live normally in the intestinal tract of animals such as beaver and deer. Giardia and Cryptosporidium form dormant and hardy forms called cysts during their life cycles. The cyst forms are resistant to chlorine, which is the most popular form of drinking water disinfection, and can pass through the filters used in many water treatment plants. If ingested in drinking water they can cause debilitating and prolonged diarrhea in humans, and can be life threatening to those people with impaired immune systems. Cryptosporidium contamination of the drinking water of Milwaukee, Wisconsin with in 1993 sickened more than 400,000 people and killed 47 people. Illness caused by these protozoans are becoming more prevalent in the United States, as urban areas continue to expand into what was previously relatively undisturbed wilderness.

Many microorganisms are found naturally in fresh and saltwater. These include bacteria, cyanobacteria, protozoa, algae, and tiny animals such as rotifers. These can be important in the food chain that forms the basis of life in the water. For example, the microbes called cyanobacteria can convert the energy of the sun into the energy it needs to live. The plentiful numbers of these organisms in turn are used as food for other life. The algae that thrive in water is also an important food source for other forms of life.

A variety of microorganisms live in fresh water. The region of a water body near the shoreline that is termed the littoral zone is well lighted, shallow, and warmer than other regions of the water. Photosynthetic algae and bacteria that use light as energy thrive in this zone. Further away from the shore is the limnitic zone, which can be colder and sunlight only in the upper 100 feet or so. Photosynthetic microbes also live here. As the water deepens, temperatures become colder and the oxygen concentration and light in the water decrease. Now, microbes that require oxygen do not thrive. Instead, purple and green sulfur bacteria, which can grow without oxygen, dominate. Finally, at the bottom of fresh waters (the benthic zone), few microbes survive. Bacteria that can survive in the absence of oxygen and sunlight, such as methane producing bacteria, thrive.

Salt water presents a different environment to microorganisms. The higher salt concentration, higher pH, and lower nutrients, relative to freshwater, are lethal to many microorganisms. But, salt loving (halophilic) bacteria abound near the surface, and some bacteria that also live in freshwater are plentiful (i.e., Pseudomonas and Vibrio ). Also, in 2001, researchers demonstrated that the ancient form of microbial life known as archaebacteria is one of the dominant forms of life in the ocean. The role of archaebacteria in the ocean food chain is not yet known, but must be of vital importance.

Microorganisms exist at all depths in the ocean, even at the ocean floor, thousands of feet below the surface. Indeed, at locations such as hydrothermal vents, bacteria are the basis of the community of organisms that flourishes around the vents.

Another microorganism found in saltwater are a type of algae known as dinoflagellelates. The rapid growth and multiplication of dinoflagellates can turn the water red. This red tide depletes the water of nutrients and oxygen, which can cause many fish to die. As well, humans can become ill by eating contaminated fish.

Water can also be an ideal means of transporting microorganisms from one place to another. For example, the water that is carried in the hulls of ships to stabilize the vessels during their ocean voyages is now known to be a means of transporting microorganisms around the globe. One of these organisms, a bacterium called Vibrio cholerae, causes life threatening diarrhea in humans.

Drinking water is usually treated to minimize the risk of microbial contamination. The importance of drinking water treatment has been known for centuries. For example, in pre-Christian times the storage of drinking water in jugs made of metal was practiced. Now, the anti-bacterial effect of some metals is known. Similarly, the boiling of drinking water, as a means of protection of water has long been known.

Chemicals such as chlorine or chlorine derivatives have been a popular means of killing bacteria such as Escherichia coli in water since the early decades of the twentieth century. Other bacteria-killing treatments that are increasingly becoming popular include the use of a gas called ozone and the disabling of the microbes genetic material by the use of ultraviolet light. Microbes can also be physically excluded from the water by passing the water through a filter. Modern filters have holes in them that are so tiny that even particles as miniscule as viruses can be trapped.

An important aspect of water microbiology, particularly for drinking water, is the testing of the water to ensure that it is safe to drink. Water quality testing can de done in several ways. One popular test measures the turbidity of the water. Turbidity gives an indication of the amount of suspended material in the water. Typically, if material such as soil is present in the water then microorganisms will also be present. The presence of particles even as small as bacteria and viruses can decrease the clarity of the water. Turbidity is a quick way of indicating if water quality is deteriorating, and so if action should be taken to correct the water problem.

In many countries, water microbiology is also the subject of legislation. Regulations specify how often water sources are sampled, how the sampling is done, how the analysis will be performed, what microbes are detected, and the acceptable limits for the target microorganisms in the water sample. Testing for microbes that cause disease (i.e., Salmonella typhymurium and Vibrio cholerae ) can be expensive and, if the bacteria are present in low numbers, they may escape detection. Instead, other more numerous bacteria provide an indication of fecal pollution of the water. Escherichia coli has been used as an indicator of fecal pollution for decades. The bacterium is present in the intestinal tract in huge numbers, and is more numerous than the disease-causing bacteria and viruses. The chances of detecting Escherichia coli is better than detecting the actual disease causing microorganisms. Escherichia coli also has the advantage of not being capable of growing and reproducing in the water (except in the warm and food-laden waters of tropical countries). Thus, the presence of the bacterium in water is indicative of recent fecal pollution. Finally, Escherichia coli can be detected easily and inexpensively.



Betsy, Tom and James Keogh. Microbiology Demystified. New York: McGeaw-Hill Professional, 2005.

Hunter, Paul R., Michael Waite, and Elettra Ronchi (eds.). Drinking Water and Infectious Disease: Establishing the Links. Boca Raton: CRC, 2002.

Percival, Steven, Martha Embry, Paul Hunter, Rachel Chalmers, Jane Sellwood, and Peter Wyn-Jones. Microbiology of Waterborne Diseases: Microbiological Aspects and Risks. New York: Academic Press, 2004.

Brian Hoyle

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"Water Microbiology." The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. . 19 Jan. 2018 <>.

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