DNA fingerprinting in surface- and wastewater management

Situations arise in surface- and wastewater management in which it is often important to be able to determine the origin of the water and of the potentially problematic substances/organisms it might contain. Examples would include the detection of faecal contamination at recreational water locations, nutrient-related questions or malfunctioning WWTPs. This research involved a deeper examination of the extent of the possible contribution of advanced DNA fingerprinting techniques in clarifying such questions.


The utility of the application of DNA fingerprinting techniques, like Next Generation Sequence (NGS), has been demonstrated in a number of fields. NGS techniques can also be used to determine the microbial composition for instance of specific water (streams). NGS can also clarify issues of concern to surface- and wastewater management. We showed in this project that NGS adds value by providing answers to concrete questions raised in the water sector.


The project’s challenges related primarily to seeking the boundaries for the techniques’ implementation. This is why we used NGS to try to answer a range of questions related to various water types:

  1. Is effluent discharge into surface water traceable? And, if so, how far from the source?
  2. Is the influence of sewer overflow into surface water, and are the different origins of the overflow, traceable?
  3. Is leakage of WWTP water into groundwater traceable? And up to what distance?
  4. Is the origin of surface water that flows into other surface water (e.g., polder water into basin water) traceable? Can one distinguish the origins of comparable sources (human)?


The project’s results are several:

  • It is possible with this technique to trace sewer overflow and effluent discharge.
  • Moreover, sewer overflow and effluent discharge can even be distinguished.
  • The influence of sewer overflow and effluent discharge can be detected far from the source.

NGS is therefore a powerful technique for the solution of water-management related issues, and for tackling complex questions in surface- and wastewater management in which knowledge of the water’s origin is an important factor.