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Despite the widespread global reliance on pit latrines as improved sanitation systems, the decomposition of waste within pit latrines is poorly understood. One area needing elucidation is the characterization and function of microbial communities within pit latrines. To address this gap, we characterized the microbial communities of 55 lined pit latrines at three sampling layers from two communities in peri-urban Malawi. The microbial communities of the fecal sludge samples were analyzed for beta diversity, pathogen presence, and functional profiling. Household surveys were conducted and used to compare microbial community patterns to household characteristics and pit latrine use patterns. Compared to activated sludge, anaerobic digestion in municipal wastewater systems, and human gut microbiomes, pit latrines were found to contain unique microbial communities. While the microbial community composition as a whole did not vary by sampling depth, pathogen composition varied by sampling depth, location, and household water source. The inferred microbial function also varied by depth (e.g., increase in methanogens and decrease in aerobes with depth). The richness of lined pit latrines determined from surface samples from eight latrines was found to be representative for a given area. Samples from middle and lower depths collected using a Gulper pump did not provide more information on richness, a result that informs future sampling designs. These findings are important for improving waste-based epidemiology (WBE) approaches to understand community health and waste degradation characterization of lined pit latrines.


Copyright: © 2023 Smith et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Original Publication Information

Smith SK, Risk BB, Holm RH, Tilley E, Chigwechokha P, Capone D, et al. (2023) Microbial community function and bacterial pathogen composition in pit latrines in peri-urban Malawi. PLOS Water 2(10): e0000171. 10.1371/journal.pwat.0000171