In order to assess hygienization by anaerobic digestion, a comparison between evaluation by cultivation and quantitative real-time PCR (qPCR) including optimized DNA extraction and quantification was carried out for samples from a full-scale fermenter cascade (F1, mesophilic; F2, thermophilic; F3, mesophilic). The system was highly effective in inactivating (pathogenic) viable microorganisms, except for spore-formers. Conventionally performed cultivation underestimated viable organisms particularly in F2 and F3 by a factor of at least 10 as shown by data from extended incubation times, probably due to the rise of sublethally injured (active but not cultivable) cells. Incubation should hence be extended adequately in incubation-based hygiene monitoring of stressed samples, in order to minimize contamination risks. Although results from qPCR and cultivation agreed for the equilibrated compartments, considerably higher qPCR values were obtained for the fermenters. The difference probably corresponded to DNA copies from decayed cells that had not yet been degraded by the residual microbial activity. An extrapolation from qPCR determination to the quantity of viable organisms is hence not justified for samples that had been exposed to lethal stress.

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