Tracing faecal matter

The UK Environment Agency is developing a cutting edge DNA technique to identify pollution in bathing water.

The UK Environment Agency is developing a cutting-edge DNA technique to identify pollution in bathing water.


The most common causes of bathing water pollution are agricultural manure, animal faeces or human sewage. The Environment Agency’s new technique will help pinpoint the source of such faecal and sewage pollution, whether it is runoff from agricultural land or from a sewage outlet pipe.


The police have long used scientific techniques to investigate crime. This includes everything from fingerprinting to matching the DNA from bodily fluids or clothing fibres found at the crime scene.


Now the Environment Agency is to use similar techniques to trace where pollution has come from and help it to target action.


By isolating the DNA of faecal matter sometimes found in bathing water, the agency’s National Laboratory Service can now tell whether it is human or animal in origin. The process is called Microbial Source Tracking (MST).


Once the technique is perfected, Environment Officers will also be able to identify the sources of the pollution and then take action to stop it entering bathing water.