A new marker for human pollution contaminating surface and ground waters? Pepper virus.

 

It is common for E. Coli to be used as a marker for the potential presence of human waste in surface and ground waters. The pepper mild mottle virus is widespread in raw sewage, treated wastewater, reclaimed wastewater, and seawater exposed to wastewater. Thus, sampling for the pepper virus could be a new means of tracking human pollution that can spread to coral reefs and other sensitive ecosystems. For example, if the virus could be correlated with disease risk, it may allow a faster determination of whether or not a beach should be closed than is possible using current methods, which are slow. The common method for testing waters is to plate the water sample and see which bacteria grow, which often takes 24 hours. In contrast, a quick and cheap genetic test could identify viruses on the spot, thus providing evidence of the presence of human waste.

This strategy is still in the study stage.  No one is sure at present if, or at what concentration, the presence of the virus indicates a threat to human health. The virus itself is not a human health threat, but might be an indicator. The pepper virus is much more abundant in raw sewage than are viruses that can make people sick. So the virus might be a good frontline indicator of a recent contamination event. Some complexity arises because it is also present in some seagull and chicken fecal samples. So one could envision that a testing "toolbox" that allows screening for the pepper virus and perhaps a few other species may be the best approach.

Reports on the presence of the virus in various environmental media and its utility as an indicator can be found at http://aem.asm.org/cgi/content/abstract/75/22/7261 and http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/122466978/abstract.