Comparing the Fate and Transport of MS2 Bacteriophage and Sodium Fluorescein in a Karstic Chalk Aquifer

Daniel Matthews, Simon Bottrell, Landis Jared West, Louise Maurice, Andrew Farrant, Sarah Purnell, Danny Coffey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Groundwater flow and contaminant migration tracing is a vital method of identifying and characterising pollutant source-pathway-receptor linkages in karst aquifers. Bacteriophages are an attractive alternative tracer to non-reactive fluorescent dye tracers, as high titres (>1012 pfu mL−1) can be safely released into the aquifer, offering improved tracer detectability. However, the interpretation of bacteriophage tracer breakthrough curves is complicated as their fate and transport are impacted by aquifer physicochemical conditions. A comparative tracer migration experiment was conducted in a peri-urban catchment in southeast England to characterise the behaviour of MS2 bacteriophage relative to sodium fluorescein dye in a karstic chalk aquifer. Tracers were released into a stream sink and detected at two abstraction boreholes located 3 km and 10 km away. At both sites, the loss of MS2 phage greatly exceeded that of the solute tracer. In contrast, the qualitative shape of the dye and phage breakthrough curves were visually very similar, suggesting that the bacteriophage arriving at each site was governed by comparable transport parameters to the non-reactive dye tracer. The colloid filtration theory was applied to explain the apparent contradiction of comparable tracer breakthrough patterns despite massive phage losses in the subsurface. One-dimensional transport models were also fitted to each breakthrough curve to facilitate a quantitative comparison of the transport parameter values. The model results suggest that the bacteriophage migrates through the conduit system slightly faster than the fluorescent dye, but that the former is significantly less dispersed. These results suggest that whilst the bacteriophage tracer cannot be used to predict receptor concentrations from transport via karstic flow paths, it can provide estimates for groundwater flow and solute contaminant transit times. This study also provides insight into the attenuation and transport of pathogenic viruses in karstic chalk aquifers.
Original languageEnglish
Article number168
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 13 Feb 2024


  • Infectious Diseases
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Immunology and Allergy


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