Through their many sorption sites, microbial biofilms can accumulate both organic and inorganic particulate and colloidal material from bulk water environments. An application of such first principles to the ecology of “biocolloidal” enteric virions would suggest that they too may be concentrated by biofilms in a similar way. Though previous studies have isolated human gastrointestinal (enteric) virions from microbial biofilms, the exact human health significance of this has been neither fully investigated nor completely understood. Through an assessment of the location, accumulation and persistence of model enteric virions (φX174, MS2 and B40-8 bacteriophages as well as 20 nm fluorescent latex microspheres) within biofilms, the aim of the current study was to investigate whether the interaction of enteric virions with distribution pipe biofilms could provide a secondary source of public health concern to consumers. Model enteric virions were found to be incorporated into biofilms at concentrations representing 1% of those present in the adjacent bulk water environment. A sub-population (0.01%) of these persisted throughout an experimental period of 30 days, inferring their potential to accumulate over time. Furthermore, model enteric virions were partitioned into bacterial microcolonies, environments where biofilm bacteria can persist and re-grow, even in the presence of “acceptable” levels of disinfection. A risk model for enteric virion accumulation and release from distribution pipe biofilms suggested that associated risks may exceed USEPA benchmark values. These findings could have wide-reaching implications in water treatment and distribution strategies, and necessitate a re-appraisal of current water guideline values.

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