Published paper: Predicting the uncharacterized resistome

Over the weekend, Microbiome put online my most recent paper (1) – a project which started as an idea I got when I finished up my PhD thesis in 2016. One of my main points in the thesis (2), which was also made again on our recent review on environmental factors influencing resistance development (3), is that the greatest risks associated with antibiotic resistance in the environment may not be the resistance genes already circulating in pathogens (which are relatively easily quantified), but the ones associated with recruitment of novel resistance genes from bacteria in the environment (2-4). The latter genes are, however, impossible to quantify due to the fact that they are unknown. But what if we could use knowledge of the diversity and abundance of known resistance genes to estimate the same properties of the yet uncharacterized resistome? That would be a great advantage in e.g. ranking of risk environments, as then some property that is easily monitored can be used to inform risk management of both known and unknown resistance factors.

This just published paper explores this possibility, by quantifying the abundance and diversity of resistance genes in 1109 metagenomes from various environments (1). I have taken two different approaches. First, I took out smaller subsets of genes from the reference database (in this case Resqu, a database of antibiotic resistance genes with verified resistance functions, detected on mobile genetic elements), and used those subsets to estimate resistome diversity and abundance in the 1109 metagenomes. Then these predictions were compared to the results of the entire database. I then, in a second step, investigated if these predictions could be extended to a set of truly novel resistance genes, i.e. the resistance genes present in the FARME database, collecting data from functional metagenomics inserts (5,6).

The results show that generally the diversity and abundance of known antibiotic resistance genes can be used to predict the same properties of undescribed resistance genes (see figure above). However, the extent of this predictability is, importantly, dependent on the type of environment investigated. The study also shows that carefully selected small sets of resistance genes can describe total resistance gene diversity remarkably well. This means that knowledge gained from large-scale quantifications of known resistance genes can be utilized as a proxy for unknown resistance factors. This is important for current and proposed monitoring efforts for environmental antibiotic resistance (7-11) and has implications for the design of risk ranking strategies and the choices of measures and methods for describing resistance gene abundance and diversity in the environment.

The study also investigated which diversity measures were best suited to estimate total diversity. Surprisingly, some diversity measures described the total diversity of resistance genes remarkably bad. Most prominently, the Simpson diversity index consistently showed poor performance, and while the Shannon index performed relatively better, there is still no reason to select the Shannon index over normalized (rarefied) richness of resistance genes. The ACE estimator fluctuated substantially compared to the other diversity measures, while the Chao1 estimator more consistently showed performance very similar to richness. Therefore, either richness or the Chao1 estimator should be used for ranking resistance gene diversity, while the Shannon, Simpson, and ACE measures should be avoided.

Importantly, this study implies that the recruitment of novel antibiotic resistance genes from the environment to human pathogens is essentially random. Therefore, when ranking risks associated with antibiotic resistance in environmental settings, the knowledge gained from large-scale quantification of known resistance genes can be utilized as a proxy for the unknown resistance factors (although this proxy is not perfect). Thus, high-risk environments for resistance development and dissemination would, for example, be aquaculture, animal husbandry, discharges from antibiotic manufacturing, and untreated sewage (3,8,12-15). Further attention should probably be paid to antibiotic contaminated soils, as this study points to soils as a vast source of resistance genes not yet encountered in human pathogens. This has also been suggested previously by others (16-19). The results of this study can be used to guide monitoring efforts for environmental antibiotic resistance, to design risk ranking strategies, and to choose appropriate measures and methods for describing resistance gene abundance and diversity in the environment. The entire open access paper is available here.


  1. Bengtsson-Palme J: The diversity of uncharacterized antibiotic resistance genes can be predicted from known gene variants – but not always. Microbiome, 6, 125 (2018). doi: 10.1186/s40168-018-0508-2
  2. Bengtsson-Palme J: Antibiotic resistance in the environment: a contribution from metagenomic studies. Doctoral thesis (medicine), Department of Infectious Diseases, Institute of Biomedicine, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, 2016. [Link]
  3. Bengtsson-Palme J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Environmental factors influencing the development and spread of antibiotic resistance. FEMS Microbiology Reviews, 42, 1, 68–80 (2018). doi: 10.1093/femsre/fux053
  4. Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Antibiotic resistance genes in the environment: prioritizing risks. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 369 (2015). doi: 10.1038/nrmicro3399-c1
  5. Wallace JC, Port JA, Smith MN, Faustian EM: FARME DB: a functional antibiotic resistance element database. Database, 2017, baw165 (2017).
  6. Handelsman J, Rondon MR, Brady SF, Clardy J, Goodman RM: Molecular biological access to the chemistry of unknown soil microbes: a new frontier for natural products. Chemical Biology, 5, R245–249 (1998).
  7. 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).
  8. Pruden A, Larsson DGJ, Amézquita A, Collignon P, Brandt KK, Graham DW, et al.: Management options for reducing the release of antibiotics and antibiotic resistance genes to the environment. Environmental Health Perspectives, 121, 878–885 (2013).
  9. Review on Antimicrobial Resistance: Antimicrobials in agriculture and the environment: reducing unnecessary use and waste. O’Neill J, ed. London: Wellcome Trust & HM Government (2015).
  10. Angers-Loustau A, Petrillo M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Berendonk T, Blais B, Chan KG, Coque TM, Hammer P, Heß S, Kagkli DM, Krumbiegel C, Lanza VF, Madec J-Y, Naas T, O’Grady J, Paracchini V, Rossen JWA, Ruppé E, Vamathevan J, Venturi V, Van den Eede G: The challenges of designing a benchmark strategy for bioinformatics pipelines in the identification of antimicrobial resistance determinants using next generation sequencing technologies. F1000Research, 7, 459 (2018). doi: 10.12688/f1000research.14509.1
  11. Larsson DGJ, Andremont A, Bengtsson-Palme J, Brandt KK, de Roda Husman AM, Fagerstedt P, Fick J, Flach C-F, Gaze WH, Kuroda M, Kvint K, Laxminarayan R, Manaia CM, Nielsen KM, Ploy M-C, Segovia C, Simonet P, Smalla K, Snape J, Topp E, van Hengel A, Verner-Jeffreys DW, Virta MPJ, Wellington EM, Wernersson A-S: Critical knowledge gaps and research needs related to the environmental dimensions of antibiotic resistance. Environment International, 117, 132–138 (2018). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.04.041
  12. Allen HK, Donato J, Wang HH, Cloud-Hansen KA, Davies J, Handelsman J: Call of the wild: antibiotic resistance genes in natural environments. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 8, 251–259 (2010).
  13. Graham DW, Collignon P, Davies J, Larsson DGJ, Snape J: Underappreciated role of regionally poor water quality on globally increasing antibiotic resistance. Environmental Science & Technology, 48,11746–11747 (2014).
  14. Larsson DGJ: Pollution from drug manufacturing: review and perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B Biological Sciences, 369, 20130571 (2014).
  15. Cabello FC, Godfrey HP, Buschmann AH, Dölz HJ: Aquaculture as yet another environmental gateway to the development and globalisation of antimicrobial resistance. Lancet Infectious Diseases, 16, e127–133 (2016).
  16. Forsberg KJ, Reyes A, Wang B, Selleck EM, Sommer MOA, Dantas G: The shared antibiotic resistome of soil bacteria and human pathogens. Science, 337, 1107–1111 (2012).
  17. Allen HK, Moe LA, Rodbumrer J, Gaarder A, Handelsman J: Functional metagenomics reveals diverse beta-lactamases in a remote Alaskan soil. ISME Journal, 3, 243–251 (2009).
  18. Riesenfeld CS, Goodman RM, Handelsman J: Uncultured soil bacteria are a reservoir of new antibiotic resistance genes. Environmental Microbiology, 6, 981–989 (2004).
  19. McGarvey KM, Queitsch K, Fields S: Wide variation in antibiotic resistance proteins identified by functional metagenomic screening of a soil DNA library. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 78, 1708–1714 (2012).