After the usual (1,2) long wait between acceptance and publication, Science of the Total Environment today put a paper online in which I have played a role in the bioinformatic analysis. In the paper, we investigate whether antifouling paint containing copper and zinc could co-select for antibiotic resistance, using microbiological methods and metagenomic sequencing (3).
In this work, we have studied marine microbial biofilms allowed to grow on surfaces painted with antifouling paint submerged in sea water. Such antifouling paints often contain metals that potentially could co-select for antibiotic resistance (4). Using microbiological culturing, we found that the heavy-metal based paint co-selected for bacteria resistant to tetracycline. However, the paint did not enrich neither the total abundance of known mobile antibiotic resistance genes nor the abundance of tetracycline resistance genes in the biofilm communities. Rather, the communities from the painted surfaces were enriched for bacteria with genetic profiles suggesting increased capacity for extrusion of antibiotics via RND efflux systems. In addition, these communities were also enriched for genes involved in mobilization of DNA, such as ISCR transposases and integrases. Finally, the biofilm communities from painted surfaces displayed lower taxonomic diversity and were at the same time enriched for Gammaproteobacteria. The paper builds on our previous work in which we identify certain co-occurences between genes conferring metal and antibiotic resistance (4). However, the findings of this paper do not lend support for that mobile resistance genes are co-selected for by copper and zinc in the marine environment – rather the increase in antibiotic resistance seem to be due to taxonomic changes and cross-resistance mechanisms. The entire paper can be read here.
I will give a short talk on our findings related to antibiotic resistance associated with pharmaceutical production facilities in India at a one-hour webinar arranged by Healthcare Without Harm, taking place on Thursday, November 3rd, 10.00 CET. The webinar will discuss “hot-spot” environments in which antimicrobial resistance can emerge, such as areas in which there are poor pharmaceutical manufacturing practices, where expired or unused drugs are disposed of in an inappropriate way (i.e. by flushing them down the toilet or sink, or disposing them in household rubbish), and areas in which pharmaceuticals are used for aquaculture or agriculture. This is an important aspect of the resistance problem, but to date most of the actions taken to tackle the spread of AMR don’t take into account this aspect of antimicrobials released into the environment. The webinar is co-organised by HCWH Europe and HCWH Asia, and aims to raise awareness about the issue of AMR and its environmental impact. It features, apart from myself, Lucas Wiarda (Global Marketing Director & Head of Sustainable Antibiotics Program at DSM Sinochem Pharmaceuticals) and Sister Mercilyn Jabel (Pharmacist at Saint Paul Hospital Cavite, Philippines).
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Me and Joakim Larsson wrote an opinion/summary piece for the APUA Newsletter, issued by the Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics, that was published yesterday (1). The paper is essentially a summary of work included in my PhD thesis, and discusses how to establish minimal selective concentrations of antibiotics for microbial communities (2-4), how to identify risk environments for resistance selection (5-9), and which mitigation strategies that can be implemented (10-12). Partially, we also discussed these issues earlier in our paper in the Medicine Maker (10), but this paper goes deeper into why limiting antibiotic pollution is important to mitigate the accelerating antibiotic resistance problem. I recommend this short summary piece to anyone who would like a brief overview of our research on antibiotic resistance, and think that it can serve as a great starting point for further reading! In addition, this issue of the newsletter features very interesting pieces on reducing antibiotics use (and disposal) outside of the clinics (13) and revival of old antibiotics (14). Please go ahead to the APUA web site and read the entire newsletter!
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:
References and notes
So, on Thursday (May 26th) I will defend my thesis, titled “Antibiotic resistance in the environment: a contribution from metagenomic studies”. I will not dwell into this by writing a novel text, but will instead shamelessly reproduce the press release, which should give a reasonable overview of what I have been doing:
More and more people are infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria. But how do bacteria become resistant? A doctoral thesis from the Centre for Antibiotic Resistance Research at University of Gothenburg has investigated the role of the environment in the development of antibiotic resistance.
“An important question we asked was how low concentrations of antibiotics that can favour the growth of resistant bacteria in the environment”, says Johan Bengtsson-Palme, author of the thesis.
“Based on our analyses, we propose emission limits for 111 antibiotics that should not be exceeded in order to avoid that environmental bacteria become more resistant.”
A starting point to regulate antibiotic pollution
A recent report, commissioned by the British Prime Minister David Cameron, proposes that the emission limits suggested in Johan’s thesis should be used as a starting point to regulate antibiotic pollution from, for example, pharmaceutical production – globally.
“Many people are surprised that such regulations are not already in place, but today it is actually not a crime to discharge wastewater contaminated with large amounts of antibiotics, not even in Europe”, says Johan Bengtsson-Palme.
In one of the studies in the thesis, the researchers show that resistance genes against a vast range of antibiotics are enriched in an Indian lake polluted by dumping of wastewater from pharmaceutical production.
“It’s scary. Not only do the bacteria carry a multitude of resistance genes. They are also unusually well adapted to share those genes with other bacteria. If a disease-causing bacterium ends up in the lake, it may quickly pick up the genes it needs to become resistant. Since the lake is located close to residential areas, such spread of resistant bacteria to humans is not hard to imagine”, says Johan Bengtsson-Palme.
Spreading by travelers
The thesis also shows that resistant bacteria spread in the intestines of travelers who have visited India or Central Africa, even if the travelers themselves have not become sick.
“That resistant bacteria spread so quickly across the planet highlights that we must adopt a global perspective on the resistance problem”, says Johan Bengtsson-Palme. “Furthermore, it is not enough to reduce the use of antibiotics in healthcare. We must also reduce the use of antibiotics for animals, and try to limit the releases of antibiotics into the environment to try to get control over the growing antibiotic resistance problem before it is too late”.
The thesis Antibiotic resistance in the environment: a contribution from metagenomic studies will be defended on a dissertation on May 26th.
In the most recent issue of the Medicine Maker (#0416), there is a short opinion piece by me and Joakim Larsson, in which we argue for that pharmaceutical companies should live up to their ethical responsibilities, and may actually benefit from doing so (1). We were invited to write for the Medicine Maker based on our recent papers on proposed limits for antibiotic discharges into the environment (2) and minimal selective concentrations (3).
We argue that now as PNECs for resistance selection are available, they should be applied in regulatory contexts. The recent O’Neill report on antimicrobial resistance (commissioned by the British Government) specifically highlighted the urgent need for enforceable regulations on antibiotic discharges (4). The concentrations we reported in our Environment International paper (2) can be used by local, national and international authorities to define emission limits for antibiotic-producing factories, but also for pharmaceutical companies to assess and manage risks for resistance selection associated with their own discharges.
After a long wait (1) Sara Lundström’s paper establishing minimal selective concentrations (MSCs) for the antibiotic tetracycline in complex microbial communities (2), of which I am a co-author, has gone online. Personally, I think this paper is among the finest work I have been involved in; a lot of good science have gone into this publication. Risk assessment and management of antibiotics pollution is in great need of scientific data to underpin mitigation efforts (3). This paper describes a method to determine the minimal selective concentrations of antibiotics, and investigates different endpoints for measuring those MSCs. The method involves a testing system highly relevant for aquatic communities, in which bacteria are allowed to form biofilms in aquaria under controlled antibiotic exposure. Using the system, we find that 1 μg/L tetracycline selects for the resistance genes tetA and tetG, while 10 μg/L tetracycline is required to detect changes of phenotypic resistance. In short, the different endpoints studied (and their corresponding MSCs) were:
This study confirms that the estimated PNECs we reported recently (4) correspond well to experimentally determined MSCs, at least for tetracycline. Importantly, the selective concentrations we report for tetracycline overlap with those that have been reported in sewage treatment plants (5). We also see that tetracycline not only selects for tetracycline resistance genes, but also resistance genes against other classes of antibiotics, including sulfonamides, beta-lactams and aminoglycosides. Finally, the approach we describe can be used for improved in risk assessment for (also other) antibiotics, and to refine the emission limits we suggested in a recent paper based on theoretical calculations (4).
References and notes
Yesterday was an intensive day for typesetters apparently, since they put two of my papers online on the same day. This second paper was published in Environment International, and focuses on predicting minimal selective concentrations for all antibiotics present in the EUCAST database (1).
Today (well, up until yesterday at least), we have virtually no knowledge of which environmental concentrations that can exert a selection pressure for antibiotic resistant bacteria. However, experimentally determining minimal selective concentrations (MSCs) in complex ecosystems would involve immense efforts if done for all antibiotics. Therefore, efforts to theoretically determine MSCs for different antibiotics have been suggested (2,3). In this paper we therefore estimate upper boundaries for selective concentrations for all antibiotics in the EUCAST database, based on the assumption that selective concentrations a priori must be lower than those completely inhibiting growth. Data on Minimal Inhibitory Concentrations (MICs) were obtained for 122 antibiotics and antibiotics combinations, the lowest observed MICs were identified for each of those across all tested species, and to compensate for limited species coverage, we adjusted the lowest MICs for the number of tested species. We finally assessed Predicted No Effect Concentrations (PNECs) for resistance selection using an assessment factor of 10 to account for the differences between MICs and MSCs. Since we found that the link between taxonomic similarity between species and lowest MIC was weak, we have not compensated for the taxonomic diversity that each antibiotic was tested against – only for limited number of species tested. In most cases, our PNECs for selection of resistance were below available PNECs for ecotoxicological effects retrieved from FASS. Also, concentrations predicted to be selective have, for some antibiotics, been detected in regular sewage treatment plants (4), and are greatly exceeded in environments polluted by pharmaceutical pollution (5-7), often with drastic consequences in terms of resistance gene enrichments (8-10). This is a central issue since in principle a transfer event of a novel resistance determinant from an environmental bacteria to an (opportunistic) human pathogen only need to occur once to become a clinical problem (11). Once established, the gene could then spread through human activities, such as trade and travel (7,13). Importantly, this paper:
The paper is available under open access here. We hope, and believe, that the data will be of great use in environmental risk assessments, in efforts by industries, regulatory agencies or purchasers of medicines to define acceptable environmental emissions of antibiotics, in the implementation of environmental monitoring programs, for directing mitigations, and for prioritizing future studies on environmental antibiotic resistance.
I am very happy to announce that our paper on the metagenomes of periphyton communities (1) have been accepted in Frontiers in Microbiology (Aquatic Microbiology section). This project has been one of my longest running, as it started as my master thesis in 2010 and has gone through several metamorphoses before hitting its final form.
Briefly, our main findings are that:
Most of this work has been carried out by my colleague Kemal Sanli, who have been doing a wonderful job pulling this together, with the help of Henrik Nilsson and Martin Eriksson. It also deserves to be noted that this work was the starting point for the Metaxa software (2,3), which recently reached version 2.1.1.