Microbiology, Metagenomics and Bioinformatics

Johan Bengtsson-Palme, University of Gothenburg | Wisconsin Institute for Discovery

Browsing Posts tagged Ecotoxicology

Recently, Le Page et al. published a paper in Environmental International (1), partially building on the predicted no-effect concentrations for resistance selection for 111 antibiotics that me and Joakim Larsson published around two years ago (2). In their paper, the authors stress that discharge limits for antibiotics need to consider their potency to affect both environmental and human health, which we believe is a very reasonable standpoint, and to which we agree. However, we do not agree on the authors’ claim that cyanobacteria would often be more sensitive to antibiotics than the most sensitive human-associated bacteria (1). Importantly, we also think that it is a bit unclear from the paper which protection goals are considered. Are the authors mainly concerned with protecting microbial diversity in ecosystems, protecting ecosystem functions and services, or protecting from risks for resistance selection? This is important because it influence why one would want to mitigate, and therefore who would perform which actions. To elaborate a little on our standpoints, we wrote a short correspondence piece to Environment International, which is now published (3). (It has been online for a few days, but without a few last-minute changes we did to the proof, and hence I’m only posting about it now when the final version is online.) There is indeed an urgent need for discharge limits for antibiotics, particularly for industrial sources (4) and such limits would have tremendous value in regulation efforts, and in development of environmental criteria within public procurement and generic exchange programs (5). Importantly, while we are all for taking ecotoxicological data into account when doing risk assessment, we think that there should be solid scientific ground for mitigations and that regulations need to consider the benefits versus the costs, which is what we want to convey in our response to Le Page et al.


  1. Le Page G, Gunnarsson L, Snape J, Tyler CR: Integrating human and environmental health in antibiotic risk assessment: a critical analysis of protection goals, species sensitivity and antimicrobial resistance. Environment International, in press (2017). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.09.013
  2. 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
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Protection goals must guide risk assessment for antibiotics. Environment International, in press (2017). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2017.10.019
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Time to limit antibiotic pollution. The Medicine Maker, 0416, 302, 17–18 (2016). [Paper link]
  5. Bengtsson-Palme J, Gunnarsson L, Larsson DGJ: Can branding and price of pharmaceuticals guide informed choices towards improved pollution control during manufacturing? Journal of Cleaner Production, 171, 137–146 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.09.247

I just got word from BMC Genomics that my most recent paper has just been published (in provisional form; we still have not seen the edited proofs). In this paper (1), which I have co-authored with Anders Blomberg, Magnus Alm Rosenblad and Mikael Molin, we utilize metagenomic data from the GOS-expedition (2) together with fully sequenced bacterial genomes to show that:

  1. Detoxification genes in general are underrepresented in marine planktonic bacteria
  2. Surprisingly, the detoxification that show a differential distribution are more abundant in open ocean water than closer to the coast
  3. Peroxidases and peroxiredoxins seem to be the main line of defense against oxidative stress for bacteria in the marine milieu, rather than e.g. catalases
  4. The abundance of detoxification genes does not seem to increase with estimated pollution.

From this we conclude that other selective pressures than pollution likely play the largest role in shaping marine planktonic bacterial communities, such as for example nutrient limitations. This suggests substantial streamlining of gene copy number and genome sizes, in line with observations made in previous studies (3). Along the same lines, our findings indicate that the majority of marine bacteria would have a low capacity to adapt to increased pollution, which is relevant as large amounts of human pollutants and waste end up in the oceans every year. The study exemplifies the use of metagenomics data in ecotoxicology, and how we can examine anthropogenic consequences on life in the sea using approaches derived from genomics. You can read the paper in its entirety here.


  1. Bengtsson-Palme J, Alm Rosenblad M, Molin M, Blomberg A: Metagenomics reveals that detoxification systems are underrepresented in marine bacterial communities. BMC Genomics. Volume 15, Issue 749 (2014). doi: 10.1186/1471-2164-15-749 [Paper link]

  2. Yooseph S, Sutton G, Rusch DB, Halpern AL, Williamson SJ, Remington K, Eisen JA, Heidelberg KB, Manning G, Li W, Jaroszewski L, Cieplak P, Miller CS, Li H, Mashiyama ST, Joachimiak MP, Van Belle C, Chandonia J-M, Soergel DA, Zhai Y, Natarajan K, Lee S, Raphael BJ, Bafna V, Friedman R, Brenner SE, Godzik A, Eisenberg D, Dixon JE, Taylor SS, et al: The Sorcerer II Global Ocean Sampling expedition: expanding the universe of protein families. PLoS Biology. 5:e16 (2007).
  3. Yooseph S, Nealson KH, Rusch DB, McCrow JP, Dupont CL, Kim M, Johnson J, Montgomery R, Ferriera S, Beeson KY, Williamson SJ, Tovchigrechko A, Allen AE, Zeigler LA, Sutton G, Eisenstadt E, Rogers Y-H, Friedman R, Frazier M, Venter JC: Genomic and functional adaptation in surface ocean planktonic prokaryotes. Nature. 468:60–66 (2010).