DNA-based microbial source tracking (MST) methods were developed and used to specifically and sensitively track the unintended aerosolization of land-applied, anaerobically digested sewage sludge (biosolids) during high-wind events. Culture and phylogenetic analyses of bulk biosolids provided a basis for the development of three different MST methods. They included (i) culture- and 16S rRNA gene-based identification of Clostridium bifermentans, (ii) direct PCR amplification and sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene for an uncultured bacterium of the class Chloroflexi that is commonly present in anaerobically digested biosolids, and (iii) direct PCR amplification of a 16S rRNA gene of the phylum Euryarchaeota coupled with terminal restriction fragment length polymorphism to distinguish terminal fragments that are unique to biosolid-specific microorganisms. Each method was first validated with a broad group of bulk biosolids and soil samples to confirm the target's exclusive presence in biosolids and absence in soils. Positive responses were observed in 100% of bulk biosolid samples and in less than 11% of the bulk soils tested. Next, a sampling campaign was conducted in which all three methods were applied to aerosol samples taken upwind and downwind of fields that had recently been land applied with biosolids. When average wind speeds were greater than 5 m/s, source tracking results confirmed the presence of biosolids in 56% of the downwind samples versus 3% of the upwind samples. During these high-wind events, the biosolid concentration in downwind aerosols was between 0.1 and 2 microg/m3. The application of DNA-based source tracking to aerosol samples has confirmed that wind is a possible mechanism for the aerosolization and off-site transport of land-applied biosolids.
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