Differential development of Legionella sub-populations during short- and long-term starvation

Schrammel, Barbara; Cervero-Arago, Silvia; Dietersdorfer, Elisabeth; Walochnik, Julia; Lueck, Christian; Sommer, Regina; Kirschner, Alexander

WATER RESEARCH, 141 417-427; 10.1016/j.watres.2018.04.027 SEP 15 2018

Abstract: Legionellae are among the most important waterborne pathogens in industrialized countries. Monitoring and surveillance of Legionella in engineered water systems is usually performed with culture-based methods. Since the advent of culture-independent techniques, it has become clear that Legionella concentrations are often several orders of magnitude higher than those measured by culture-based techniques and that a variable proportion of these non-culturable cells are viable. In engineered water systems, the formation of these viable but non-culturable (VBNC) cells can be caused by different kinds of stress, such as, and most importantly, nutrient starvation, oxidative stress and heat. In this study, the formation of VBNC cells of six Legionella strains under conditions of starvation was monitored in mono species microcosms for up to one year using a combination of different viability indicators. Depending on the strain, complete loss of culturability was observed from 11 days to 8 weeks. During the starvation process, three distinct phases and different sub-populations of VBNC cells were identified. Until complete loss of culturability, the number of membrane-intact cells decreased rapidly to 5.5-69% of the initial cell concentration. The concentration of the sub-population with low esterase activity dropped to 0.03-55%, and the concentration of the highly esterase-active sub-population dropped to 0.01-1.2% of the initial concentration; these sub-populations remained stable for several weeks to months. Only after approximately 200 days of starvation, the number of VBNC cells started to decrease below detection limits. The most abundant VBNC sub-populations were characterized by partially damaged membranes and low esterase-activity. With this study, we showed that upon starvation, a stable VBNC Legionella community may be present over several months in a strain-dependent manner even under harsh conditions. Even after one year of starvation, a small proportion of L pneumophila cells with high esterase-activity was detected. We speculate that this highly active VBNC subpopulation is able to infect amoebae and human macrophages. (C) 2018 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.



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