Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)


Environmental Health Sciences

Date of Award


Committee Chair or Co-Chairs

Phillip R. Scheuerman

Committee Members

Timothy Andrew Joyner, Kimberlee Hall, Ying Li, Kurt Maier


Animal and human wastes introduce pathogens into rivers and streams, creating human health and economic burdens. While direct monitoring for pathogens is possible, it is impractical due to the sporadic distribution of pathogens, cost to identify, and health risks to laboratory workers. To overcome these issues, fecal indicator organisms are used to estimate the presence of pathogens. Although fecal indicators generally protect public health, they fall short in their utility because of difficulties in public health risk characterization, inconsistent correlations with pathogens, weak source identification, and their potential to persist in environments with no point sources of fecal pollution. This research focuses on characterizing the ecology of fecal indicators using both modeling and metabolic indicators to better understand the processes that drive fecal pollution. Fecal indicator impairment was modeled in Sinking Creek, a 303 (d) listed stream in Northeast Tennessee, using the ecological niche model, Maxent, for two different fecal indicators. While the use of Maxent has been well demonstrated at the macroscale, this study introduces its application to ecological niches at the microscale. Stream impairment seasonality was exhibited in two different indicators over multiple years and different resolutions (quarterly versus monthly sampling programs). This stresses the need for multiple year and month sampling to capture heterogeneity in fecal indicator concentrations. Although discharge is strongly associated with dissolved solutes, fecal indicator impairment was governed by other ecological factors such as populations of heterotrophic bacteria, enzyme activity, nutrient conditions, and other metabolic indicators. This research also incorporated metabolic indicators to characterize spatiotemporal variability in microbial community function, making connections to fecal and other pollution gradients. Communities differed in their ability to use a wide variety of substrates, and metabolic inhibition in sediments captured most of the interaction of aquatic and benthic communities. Sediment substrate activity was also indicative of degrees of pollution, suggesting that sediment is a potential reservoir for Escherichia coli in this stream, and there is possibility for resuspension, extended residence times, and increased duration for exposure. This research highlights the benefit of using models and other microbial indicators to better understand how environment shapes the niche of fecal indicators.

Document Type

Dissertation - Withheld


Copyright by the authors.

Available for download on Saturday, November 12, 2022