Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Plant and Soil Science

First Advisor

Deborah Neher


Escherichia coli (E. coli) are common and typically innocuous copiotrophic bacteria found in the mammalian gut microbiome. However, over the past 30 years, pathogenic E. coli have been responsible for several outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to contaminated produce. The introduction of Escherichia coli to an agricultural soil, via contaminated water, compost, or raw manure, exposes the bacterium to a medley of ecological forces not found in a mammalian gut environment. This study assesses a variety of abiotic and biotic soil factors that influence the ability of an "invasive" copiotrophic coliform bacterium to survive in compost-amended agricultural soil. The study included both field and laboratory components. In the lab experiment, a cocktail of rifampicin-resistant generic E.coli strains was added to sterile and non-sterile extracts of eight different composts and one soil sample from the field sites. E. coli abundance was monitored over a one-week period and composts were analyzed for their nutrient profile. In the field experiment, the same E. coli cocktail was sprayed on plots with the following treatments: 1) dairy windrow compost, 2) dairy vermicompost, 3) poultry windrow compost, or 4) no compost. E. coli abundance, soil water potential, soil temperature, extracellular enzyme activity, microbial respiration, phospholipid fatty acid biomarker abundance, and genetic sequencing of the microbial community were measured over a six-month field season.

The lab experiment showed that E. coli were able to grow well in sterile compost extracts, without microbial competition for nutrients. Conversely, E. coli populations were only able to survive in non-sterile soil extracts. These results suggest that copiotrophic organisms adapted for high-nutrient environments may depend on the extracellular enzyme activity of native oligotrophic organisms to acquire sufficient nutrients to survive in soils. Results of the field experiment showed clear and interdependent effects of soil moisture and nutrient availability on microbial community dynamics and E. coli survival. Data suggest that saturated soils cause a decrease in microbial extracellular enzyme activity, and drying-rewetting cycles can cause respiration bursts, nutrient mineralization, and shifts in community composition. The saturation of soils, which mobilizes nutrients and may result in a decrease in competition from aerobic organisms, correlated directly with increased survival of E. coli. Additionally, amendment with ammonium-rich poultry compost resulted in the maintenance of high levels of E. coli throughout the field season. Despite an increase in microbial biomass from dairy vermicompost amendment, poultry compost was the only compost that had a significant effect on E. coli survival. The results suggest that nitrogen availability and water potential are strong drivers of E. coli's survival in soils. Correlations among abiotic factors, community composition, and E. coli survival reveal insights into the complex relationships that occur in disturbed agricultural soil environments. Further research on E. coli's response to targeted organisms, abiotic soil properties, and nutrient inputs could have implications for agricultural considerations in food safety and microbial ecology.



Number of Pages

117 p.