The Monte Conca cave system on the island of Sicily is a vast system of springs and pools, sitting below a nature preserve. It might be presumed to be one of the few places untouched by human-driven pollution.

But new research published by a USF microbiology and geoscience team has found that even below ground, the microbial communities in the pools of water in the Monte Conca show signs of being altered by pollution from above.

Publishing in the prestigious journal, PLoS One, the team found that water flowing through the vast cave system produced changes in the microbial communities between the wet and dry seasons, with the microbial communities differing in bacterial composition and ecological functions. The study suggests that as flows through agricultural and urban areas, it collects bacterial contaminants before entering cave systems.

The purpose of the study was to determine the impact surface runoff has on cave microbial communities using the Monte Conca spring pool as a model. The long-term impacts of these surface-derived bacterial contaminants or their impact on groundwater sources is currently not well known, said lead author Dr. Madison Davis of USF’s Department of Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology.