Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 24, Issue 30, pp 23725–23734 | Cite as

Monitoring of genetically modified Escherichia coli in laboratory wastewater

  • Fabienne Wichmann
  • Ines Wyrsch
  • Jörg Frank
  • Matthias Müller
  • Nicole Bertschi
  • Peter Brodmann
  • Claudia Bagutti
Research Article


Containment of genetically modified (GM) microorganisms such as Escherichia coli is a legal requirement to protect the environment from an unintended release and to avoid horizontal gene transfer (HGT) of recombinant DNA to native bacteria. In this study, we sampled the laboratory wastewater (LWW) at a large Swiss university from three sources over 2 years and cultured ampicillin-resistant, presumptive GM E. coli. From a total of 285 samples, 127 contained presumptive GM E. coli (45%) at a mean concentration of 2.8 × 102 CFU/ml. Plasmid DNA of 11 unique clones was partially or entirely sequenced. All consisted of cloning vectors harboring research-specific inserts. To estimate the chance of HGT between GM E. coli and native bacteria in LWW, we identified taxa representative for the bacterial community in LWW using 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing and measured conjugation frequencies of E. coli with five LWW isolates. At optimal conjugation conditions, frequencies were between 3.4 × 10−3 and 2.4 × 10−5. Given the absence of transferable broad-host range plasmids and suboptimal conjugation conditions in the LWW system, we conclude that the chance of HGT is relatively low. Still, this study shows that the implementation of robust containment measures is key to avoid the escape of GM microorganisms.


Genetically modified E. coli Wastewater Laboratory Release Containment Horizontal gene transfer 



This work was financially supported by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) in Switzerland. We thank Monica Alt for technical assistance, Dirk Hamburger for critical reading of the manuscript, and the Office of Waste, Water, Energy and Air WWEA, Canton Zurich for providing the results of the Questionnaire. We are grateful to the member of the working group “Safe disposal of Risk Group 1 organisms” headed by the FOPH including Basil Gerber (Federal Office for the Environment FOEN), Manuela Ocaña and Samuel Roulin (Federal Office of Public Health FOPH), Claudia Ruprecht and Christina Stadler (Office of Waste, Water, Energy and Air WWEA, Canton Zurich) for constructive discussions as well as valuable comments on the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.State Laboratory Basel-City, Biosafety LaboratoryBaselSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department for Safety, Security and EnvironmentUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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