Opportunistic Pathogens Enriched in Showerhead Biofilms



The environments we humans encounter daily are sources of exposure to diverse microbial communities, some of potential concern to human health. In this study, we used culture-independent technology to investigate the microbial composition of biofilms inside showerheads as ecological assemblages in the human indoor environment. Showers are an important interface for human interaction with microbes through inhalation of aerosols, and showerhead waters have been implicated in disease. Although opportunistic pathogens commonly are cultured from shower facilities, there is little knowledge of either their prevalence or the nature of other microorganisms that may be delivered during shower usage. To determine the composition of showerhead biofilms and waters, we analyzed rRNA gene sequences from 45 showerhead sites around the United States. We find that variable and complex, but specific, microbial assemblages occur inside showerheads. Particularly striking was the finding that sequences representative of non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) and other opportunistic human pathogens are enriched to high levels in many showerhead biofilms, >100-fold above background water contents. We conclude that showerheads may present a significant potential exposure to aerosolized microbes, including documented opportunistic pathogens. The health risk associated with showerhead microbiota needs investigation in persons with compromised immune or pulmonary systems.


Leah M. Feazel – a

Laura K. Baumgartner – a

Kristen L. Peterson – a

Daniel N. Frank – a

J. Kirk Harris – b

Norman R. Pace – a

a – Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO 80309-0347

b-  Department of Pediatrics, University of Colorado Denver, Aurora, CO 80045
Contributed by Norman R. Pace, July 29, 2009 (sent for review June 25, 2009).


Published online September 14, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0908446106.

Copyright 2009 National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A.