Whereas the hygienic condition of drinking and bathing water by law must be monitored by culture-based methods, for quantification of microbes and antibiotic resistance in soil or the aquatic environment, often molecular genetic assays are used. For comparison of both methods, knowledge of their correlation is necessary. Therefore the population of total bacteria, Escherichia coli, enterococci and staphylococci during sewage treatment and in receiving river water was compared by agar plating and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) assays. In parallel, all samples were investigated for clinically relevant antibiotic resistance genes. Whereas plating and qPCR data for total bacteria correlated well in sewage after primary treatment, qPCR data of river water indicated higher cell numbers for E. coli. It is unknown if these cells are ‘only’ not growing under standard conditions or if they are dead. Corresponding to the amount of non-culturable cells, the ‘breakpoints’ for monitoring water quality should be adapted. The abundances of clinically relevant antibiotic resistance genes in river water were in the same order of magnitude or even higher than in treated sewage. For estimation of the health risk it is important to investigate which species carry respective genes and whether these genes are disseminated via gene transfer.

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