After a long wait (1), Science of the Total Environment has finally decided to make our paper on selection of antibiotic resistance genes in sewage treatment plants (STPs) available (2). STPs are often suggested to be “hotspots” for emergence and dissemination of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (3-6). However, we actually do not know if the selection pressures within STPs, that can be caused either by residual antibiotics or other co-selective agents, are sufficiently large to specifically promote resistance. To better understand this, we used shotgun metagenomic sequencing of samples from different steps of the treatment process (incoming water, treated water, primary sludge, recirculated sludge and digested sludge) in three Swedish STPs in the Stockholm area to characterize the frequencies of resistance genes to antibiotics, biocides and metal, as well as mobile genetic elements and taxonomic composition. In parallel, we also measured concentrations of antibiotics, biocides and metals.

We found that only the concentrations of tetracycline and ciprofloxacin in the influent water were above those that we predict to cause resistance selection (7). However, there was no consistent enrichment of resistance genes to any particular class of antibiotics in the STPs, neither for biocide and metal resistance genes. Instead, the most substantial change of the bacterial communities compared to human feces (sampled from Swedes in another study of ours (8)) occurred already in the sewage pipes, and was manifested by a strong shift from obligate to facultative anaerobes. Through the treatment process, resistance genes against antibiotics, biocides and metals were not reduced to the same extent as fecal bacteria were.

Worryingly, the OXA-48 beta-lactamase gene was consistently enriched in surplus and digested sludge. OXA-48 is still rare in Swedish clinical isolates (9), but provides resistance to carbapenems, one of our most critically important classes of antibiotics. However, taken together metagenomic sequencing did not provide clear support for any specific selection of antibiotic resistance. Rather, since stronger selective forces affect gross taxonomic composition, and thereby also resistance gene abundances, it is very hard to interpret the metagenomic data from a risk-for-selection perspective. We therefore think that comprehensive analyses of resistant vs. non-resistant strains within relevant species are warranted.

Taken together, the main take-home messages of the paper (2) are:

  • There were no apparent evidence for direct selection of resistance genes by antibiotics or co-selection by biocides or metals
  • Abiotic factors (mostly oxygen availability) strongly shape taxonomy and seems to be driving changes of resistance genes
  • Metagenomic and/or PCR-based community studies may not be sufficiently sensitive to detect selection effects, as important shifts towards resistant may occur within species and not on the community level
  • The concentrations of antibiotics, biocides and metals were overall reduced, but not removed in STPs. Incoming concentrations of antibiotics in Swedish STPs are generally low
  • Resistance genes are overall reduced through the treatment process, but far from eliminated

References and notes

  1. Okay, those who takes notes know that I have already complained once before on Science of the Total Environment’s ridiculously long production handling times. But, seriously, how can a journal’s production team return the proofs for after three days of acceptance, and then wait seven weeks before putting the final proofs online? I still wonder what is going on beyond the scenes, which is totally obscure because the production office also refuses to respond to e-mails. Not a nice publishing experience this time either.
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J, Hammarén R, Pal C, Östman M, Björlenius B, Flach C-F, Kristiansson E, Fick J, Tysklind M, Larsson DGJ: Elucidating selection processes for antibiotic resistance in sewage treatment plants using metagenomics. Science of the Total Environment, in press (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.06.228 [Paper link]
  3. Rizzo L, Manaia C, Merlin C, Schwartz T, Dagot C, Ploy MC, Michael I, Fatta-Kassinos D: Urban wastewater treatment plants as hotspots for antibiotic resistant bacteria and genes spread into the environment: a review. Science of the Total Environment, 447, 345–360 (2013). doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2013.01.032
  4. Laht M, Karkman A, Voolaid V, Ritz C, Tenson T, Virta M, Kisand V: Abundances of Tetracycline, Sulphonamide and Beta-Lactam Antibiotic Resistance Genes in Conventional Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTPs) with Different Waste Load. PLoS ONE, 9, e103705 (2014). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103705
  5. Yang Y, Li B, Zou S, Fang HHP, Zhang T: Fate of antibiotic resistance genes in sewage treatment plant revealed by metagenomic approach. Water Research, 62, 97–106 (2014). doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2014.05.019
  6. Berendonk TU, Manaia CM, Merlin C, Fatta-Kassinos D, Cytryn E, Walsh F, et al.: Tackling antibiotic resistance: the environmental framework. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 310–317 (2015). doi: 10.1038/nrmicro3439
  7. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Concentrations of antibiotics predicted to select for resistant bacteria: Proposed limits for environmental regulation. Environment International, 86, 140–149 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.10.015
  8. Bengtsson-Palme J, Angelin M, Huss M, Kjellqvist S, Kristiansson E, Palmgren H, Larsson DGJ, Johansson A: The human gut microbiome as a transporter of antibiotic resistance genes between continents. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 59, 10, 6551–6560 (2015). doi: 10.1128/AAC.00933-15
  9. Hellman J, Aspevall O, Bengtsson B, Pringle M: SWEDRES-SVARM 2014. Consumption of antimicrobials and occurrence of antimicrobial resistance in Sweden. Public Health Agency of Sweden and National Veterinary Institute, Solna/Uppsala, Sweden. Report No.: 14027. Available from: (2014)