For those of you who like to listen to (or look at) me, I will be giving a presentation at this year’s SocBiN conference in Stockholm. My presentation has the long and quite informative title: Comprehensive Analysis of Antibiotic Resistance Genes in River Sediment, Well Water and Soil Microbial Communities Using Metagenomic DNA Sequencing. The talk is scheduled in the Using Next generation sequence data session, right after Jeroen Raes and Christopher Quince… It’s a short talk, so I will probably need to keep it simple, but it will be the first time I present results generated in relation with my present position, which I personally feel is very nice. We’re moving forward!
Finally I have gotten around to finish my reply to Amy Pruden, who gave me some highly relevant and well-balanced critique of my previous post on antibiotic resistance genes as pollutants, back in early March. Too much came in between, but now I am more or less content with my answer.
First of all I would like to thank Amy for her response to my post on antibiotic resistance genes as pollutants. Her reply is very well thought-through, and her criticism of some of my claims is highly appropriate. For example, I have to agree on that the extracellular DNA pool is vastly uncharacterized, and that my statement on this likely not being a source of resistance transmission is a bit of a stretch. The role of “free-floating” DNA in gene transfer must be further elucidated, and currently we do not really know whether it is important or not; and if so, to what extent it contributes.
However, I still maintain my view that there are problems with considering resistance genes pollutants, mainly because the blurs the line between cause and effect. If we for example consider photosynthetic microbial communities exposed to the photosynthesis inhibitor Irgarol, the communities develop (or acquires) tolerance towards the compound over time (Blanck et al 2009). The tolerance mechanism has been attributed to changes in the psbA gene sequence (Eriksson et al. 2009). If we address this issue from a “resistance-genes-as-pollutants” perspective, would these tolerance-conveying psbA genes be considered pollutants? It would make sense to do so as they are unwanted in weed control circumstances; much like antibiotic resistance genes are unwanted in clinical contexts. It could be argued here that in these microbes such tolerance-associated psbA genes do not cause any harm. But consider for a moment that they did not occur microbes, but in weeds, would they then be considered pollutants? In weeds they would certainly cause (at least economic) harm. Furthermore, say that the tolerance-conveying psbA genes have the ability to spread (which is possible at least in marine settings assisted by phages (Lindell et al 2005)), would that make these tolerance genes pollutants? It is quite of a stretch but as plants can take up genetic material from bacteria (c.f. Clough & Bent 1998, although this is not my area of expertise), there could be a spreading potential to weeds of these tolerance-conveying psbA genes.
What I am trying to say is that if we start viewing antibiotic resistance genes as pollutants per se, instead of looking at the chemicals (likely) causing resistance development, we start blurring the line between cause and effect. Resistance genes in the environment provide resilience to communities (at least to some species – the issue of ecosystem function responses to toxicants is a highly interesting area one as well). However, in this case the resilience itself is the problem, because we think it can spread into human and animal pathogens. But from my point of view, the causes are still use, overuse, misuse and inappropriate release of antibiotics. Therefore, I maintain that we should be careful with pointing out resistance genes by themselves as pollutants – if we do not have very good reasons to do so.
Nevertheless, that does not mean that I think Pruden, and many other prominent authors, are wrong when they refer to resistance genes as pollutants. All I want to point out is that the statement in itself is a bit dangerous, as it might draw attention towards mitigating the effect of pollution, instead of mitigating the source of pollution itself. The persistence of resistance genes in bacterial genomes is alarming (Andersson & Hughes 2011), as it means that removal of selection pressures may have less effect on resistance gene abundance than anticipated. However, the only way I see out of this darkening scenario is to:
- Minimize the selection pressure for resistance genes in the clinical setting
- Immediately reduce environmental release of antibiotics, both from manufacturing and use. This primarily has to be done using better treatment technologies
- Find the routes that enable environmental bacteria to disseminate resistance genes to clinically relevant species and strains – and close them
- Develop antibiotics exploiting new mechanisms to eliminate bacteria
Lastly, I would like to thank Amy for taking my critique seriously – I think we agree on a lot more than we differ on, and I look forward to have this discussion in person at some point. I think we both agree that regardless of our standpoint, the terminology used in this context deserves to be discussed. Nevertheless, the terminology is quite unimportant compared to the values that are at stake – our fundamental ability to treat diseases and perform modern health care.
- Andersson, D.I. & Hughes, D., 2011. Persistence of antibiotic resistance in bacterial populations. FEMS Microbiology Reviews, 35(5), pp.901–911.
- Blanck, H., Eriksson, K. M., Grönvall, F., Dahl, B., Guijarro, K. M., Birgersson, G., & Kylin, H. (2009). A retrospective analysis of contamination and periphyton PICT patterns for the antifoulant irgarol 1051, around a small marina on the Swedish west coast. Marine pollution bulletin, 58(2), 230–237. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2008.09.021
- Clough, S. J., & Bent, A. F. (1998). Floral dip: a simplified method for Agrobacterium-mediated transformation of Arabidopsis thaliana. The Plant journal : for cell and molecular biology, 16(6), 735–743.
- Eriksson, K. M., Clarke, A. K., Franzen, L.-G., Kuylenstierna, M., Martinez, K., & Blanck, H. (2009). Community-level analysis of psbA gene sequences and irgarol tolerance in marine periphyton. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 75(4), 897–906. doi:10.1128/AEM.01830-08
- Lindell, D., Jaffe, J. D., Johnson, Z. I., Church, G. M., & Chisholm, S. W. (2005). Photosynthesis genes in marine viruses yield proteins during host infection. Nature, 438(7064), 86–89. doi:10.1038/nature04111
I received some well-formulated and very much relevant critique on my post Why viewing antibiotic resistance genes as a pollutant is a problem, which I wrote in January. To encourage the debate on this issue, I have asked the author – Amy Pruden – for her permission to republish it here, to give it the visibility it deserves. I intend to follow up on her comments in a forthcoming post, but I have not had time to formulate my answer yet. Until then, please read and contemplate both the original post by me, and Amy’s highly relevant answer below. I hope that we can continue this discussion in the same fruitful manner!
First of all I thank Johan Bengtsson for initiating a lively and much needed discussion on which pollutant we should precisely be targeting, antibiotics or antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs), in our important war against the spread of antibiotic resistance. As Bengtsson correctly alludes, my perspective comes from that of environmental science and engineering. At the core of these disciplines is defining and predicting the fate of pollutants in the environment, as well as designing appropriate means for their control. For these purposes, the definition of the pollutant of interest is of central importance. In general they may be defined as “undesired or harmful constituents within an environmental matrix, usually of human origin.” Pollutants may be classified in all shapes and sizes, including conservative (i.e., not subject to degradation or growth), non-conservative, biotic, abiotic, dissolved, and suspended (i.e., not dissolved). Thus, the first point, regarding the nature by which ARGs are spread disqualifying them from being considered as pollutants, is inaccurate.
At the same time, I recognize and agree that ARGs are indeed a natural and important aspect of the natural ecosystem. I commend recent work revealing the vast “antibiotic-resistome” in ancient environments (D’Costa et al. 2011; Allen et al. 2009), as it provides an essential understanding of the baseline antibiotic resistance in the pre-antibiotic era, which may serve as contrast for observations in the current antibiotic era. Thus, I agree that not all ARGs are pollutants, rather, anthropogenic sources of ARGs are the agents of interest. Perhaps I and others are guilty of not making this distinction more clear. It should also be pointed out that likewise, the vast majority of antibiotics in use today are derived from natural compounds, yet I agree that they can also serve as important environmental pollutants of concern. Thus, it is not necessarily whether the constituent is naturally occurring that defines the pollutant, rather its magnitude and distribution, as influenced by human activities.
It is agreed that viewing ARGs as contaminants does pose technical challenges. They may amplify within a host, or attenuate due to degradation or diminished selection pressure. However, with appropriate understanding of the mechanisms of transport and persistence, accurate models may be developed. I do contend that the jury is still out regarding the relative importance of extracellular and intracellular ARGs. The pool of extracellular DNA remains vastly uncharacterized, and some studies suggest that it is more extensive than previously thought (Wu et al. 2009; Corinaldesi et al. 2005). Other studies have specifically demonstrated the capability of extracellular ARGs to persist under certain environmental conditions and maintain its integrity for host uptake (Cai et al. 2007). While focusing attention on individual resistant strains of bacteria has merit in some instances, this approach is also greatly limited by the unculturability of the vast majority of environmental microbes. As we have now entered the metagenomic era, we now have the tools to tackle the complexity of resistance elements in the environment and precisely define the human influence. Distribution of ARGs may also be considered in parallel with key genetic elements driving their horizontal gene transfer, such as plasmids, transposons, and integrons.
Regarding the antibiotics themselves, clearly they are important. The direct relationship between clinical use and increasing rates of antibiotic resistance is well-documented and certainly continued vigilance in promoting their appropriate use and disposal is called for. What remains much foggier is the exact role of environmental antibiotics in enabling selection once released into the environment. There is good evidence that even sub-inhibitory levels of antibiotics can stimulate various functions in the cell, especially horizontal gene transfer, as reviewed recently by Aminov (2011). However, environmentally-relevant concentrations driving selection of resistant strains are largely unknown. Further, at what point along a discharge pathway from wastewater treatment plant or livestock lagoon do ARGs persist independently of ambient antibiotic conditions? Indeed, some studies have noted correlations between antibiotics and ARGs in environmental matrices while others have noted an absence of such a correlation. In either case, it appears that ARGs persist and are transported further along pathways than antibiotics, suggesting distinct factors governing transport (McKinney et al. 2010; Peak et al. 2007). Research is needed to better understand the mechanisms at play, such as antibiotics other selectors (e.g. metals and other toxins), in leaving a human foot-print on environmental reservoirs of resistance. Nonetheless, a reasonable approach for mitigating risk seems to be focusing attention on developing appropriate technologies for eliminating both antibiotics and genetic material from wastestreams.
Thanks again for opening this discussion- I hope to meet you at a conference sometime in the future!
1. Allen, H.K., Moe, L.A., Rodbumrer, J., Gaarder, A., & Handelsman, J., 2009. Functional metagenomics reveals diverse b-lactamases in a remote Alaskan soil. ISME 3, pp. 243-251.
2. Aminov, R.I., 2011. Horizontal gene exchange in environmental microbiota. Front. Microbiol. 2,158 doi:10.3389/fmicb.2011.00158.
3. Corinaldesi, C., Danovaro, R. & Dell‘Anno, A., 2005. Simultaneous recovery of intracellular and extracellular DNA suitable for molecular studies from marine sediments. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 71, pp. 46-50.
4. D’Costa, V.M., McGrann, K.M., Hughes, D.W., & Wright, G.D., 2006. Sampling the antibiotic resistome. Science 311, pp. 374-377.
5. McKinney, C.W., Loftin, K.A., Meyer, M.T., Davis, J.G., & Pruden, A., 2010. tet and sul antibiotic resistance genes in livestock lagoons of various operation type, configuration, and antibiotic occurrence. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44 (16), pp. 6102-6109.
6. Peak, N., C.W. Knapp; R.K. Yang; M.M. Hanfelt; M.S. Smith, D.S. Aga, & Graham, D. W., 2007. Abundance of six tetracycline resistance genes in wastewater lagoons at cattle feedlots with different antibiotic use strategies. Environ. Microbiol. 9 (1), pp. 143–151.
7. Wu, J. F. & Xi, C. W., 2009. Evaluation of different methods for extracting extracellular DNA from the biofilm matrix. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 75, pp. 5390-5395.
It is not uncommon that scientists, especially researchers active within the environmental field, view antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) as pollutants (e.g. Pruden et al. 2006). While there are practical benefits of doing so, especially when explaining the threat of antibiotic resistance to politicians and the public, this generalization is a little bit problematic from a scientific view. There are several reasons why this view is not as straightforward as one might think.
The first is that ARGs does not spread the same way as pollutants do. ARGs are carried in bacteria. This means that ARGs cannot readily be transferred into, e.g. the human body by themselves. They need to be carried by a bacterial host (ARGs present on free DNA floating around is of course possible, but likely not a major source of ARG transmission into new systems). Therefore, when we find resistance genes in an environment, that is an extremely strong indication of that we also have resistant bacteria. Also, finding ARGs is not necessarily an indication of high levels of antibiotics, as the resistance genes can remain present in the bacterial genome for extended periods of time after exposure (Andersson & Hughes 2011).
The second reason why ARGs should not be viewed as pollutants is that they are not. If anything, the ARGs contribute to the resilience of the ecosystem towards the actual toxicants, which are the antibiotics themselves. Having a resistance gene is an insurance that you will survive antibiotic perturbations. Calling ARGs pollutants just deflects attention from the real problem to nature’s response to our contaminant.
What we have to do is not to try to defeat the resistance itself, but to try to minimize the spread of it. This means that we need to constantly monitor our usage and possible emissions of antibiotics and try to reduce risk environments as much as possible. Emissions from sewage treatment plants (Karthikeyan & Meyer 2006; Lindberg et al. 2007), hospitals (Lindberg et al. 2004), production facilities (Larsson et al. 2007; Fick et al. 2009) and food production (Davis et al. 2011) are obvious starting points, but we need to continuously monitor sources of antibiotic pollutions. Of course, this is only my view of the problem, but I believe that while the problem for our society lies within the resistance genes, the cause lies within the actual pollutants – the antibiotics we use and abuse.
- Andersson, D.I. & Hughes, D., 2011. Persistence of antibiotic resistance in bacterial populations. FEMS Microbiology Reviews, 35(5), pp.901–911.
- Davis, M.F. et al., 2011. An ecological perspective on U.S. industrial poultry production: the role of anthropogenic ecosystems on the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria from agricultural environments. Current Opinion in Microbiology, 14(3), pp.244–250.
- Fick, J. et al., 2009. Contamination of surface, ground, and drinking water from pharmaceutical production. Environmental toxicology and chemistry / SETAC, 28(12), pp.2522–2527.
- Karthikeyan, K.G. & Meyer, M.T., 2006. Occurrence of antibiotics in wastewater treatment facilities in Wisconsin, USA. The Science of the total environment, 361(1-3), pp.196–207.
- Larsson, D.G.J., de Pedro, C. & Paxeus, N., 2007. Effluent from drug manufactures contains extremely high levels of pharmaceuticals. Journal of hazardous materials, 148(3), pp.751–755.
- Lindberg, R. et al., 2004. Determination of antibiotic substances in hospital sewage water using solid phase extraction and liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry and group analogue internal standards. Chemosphere, 57(10), pp.1479–1488.
- Lindberg, R.H. et al., 2007. Environmental risk assessment of antibiotics in the Swedish environment with emphasis on sewage treatment plants. Water research, 41(3), pp.613–619.
- Pruden, A. et al., 2006. Antibiotic resistance genes as emerging contaminants: studies in northern Colorado. Environmental Science & Technology, 40(23), pp.7445–7450.
One thing that I find slightly annoying is when people do not get the basic concepts right – or when debatable concepts are used without discussion of their implications. This further annoys me when it is done by senior scientists, who should know better. Sometimes, I guess this happens out of ignorance, and sometimes to be able to stick your subject to a certain buzzword concept. Neither is good, even though the former reason is little more forgivable then the latter. One area where this problem becomes agonizingly evident is when molecular biologists or medical scientists moves into ecology, as has happened with the advent of metagenomics. When the study of the human gut microflora turned into a large-scale sequencing effort, people who had previously studied bacteria grown on plates started facing a world of community ecology. However, I get the impression that way too often these people do not ask ecologists for advice, or even read up on the ecological literature. Which, I suppose, is the reason why medical scientists can talk about how the human gut microflora can “evolve” into a stable community a couple years after birth, even though words such as “development” or “succession” would be much more accurate to describe this change.
The marker gene flaw
To set what I mean straight, let us compare the human gut to a forest. If an open field is left to itself, larger plants will slowly inhabit it, and gradually different species will replace each other, until we have a fully developed forest. Similarly, the human gut microflora is at birth rather unstable, but stabilizes relatively quickly and within a few years we have a microbial community with “adult-like” characteristics. To arrive at this conclusion, scientists generally use the 16S (small sub-unit) genetic marker to study the bacterial species diversity. This works in pretty much the same way as going out into the forest and count trees of different kinds.
Now, if I went out into the forest once and counted the tree species, waited for 50 years and then did the same thing again, I would presumably see that the forest species composition had changed. However, if I called this “evolution”, fellow scientists would laugh at me. Raspberry bushes do not evolve into birches, and birches do not evolve into firs. Instead, ecologists talk about “succession”; a progressive transformation of a community, going on until a stable community is formed. The concept of succession seems well-suited also to describe what is happening in the human gut, and should of course also be used in that setting. The most likely driver of the functional community changes is not that some bacterial species have evolved new functions, but rather that bacterial species performing these new functions have outcompeted the once previously present.
In fact, I would argue that it is impossible to study evolution through a genetic marker such as the 16S gene (except in the rare case when you study evolution of the 16S gene itself). Instead, the only thing we could assess using a marker gene is how the copy number of the different gene variants change over time (or space, or conditions). The copy number tells us about the species composition of the community at a given time, which can be used to measure successional changes. However, evolutionary changes would require heritable changes in the characteristics of biological populations, i.e. that their genetic material change in some way. Unless that change happens in the marker gene of choice, we cannot measure it, and the alterations of composition we measure will only reflect differences in species abundances. These differences might have arisen from genetic (i.e. evolutionary) changes, but we cannot assess that.
What are we studying with metagenomics?
This brings us to the next problem, which is not only a problem of semantics and me getting annoyed, but a problem with real implications. What are we really studying using metagenomics? When we apply an environmental sequencing approach to a microbial community, we get a snapshot of the genetic material at a given time and site; at specific conditions. Usually, we aim to characterize the community from a taxonomic or functional perspective, and we often have some other community which we want to compare to. However, if we only collect data from different communities at one time point, or if we only study a community before and after exposure, we have no way of telling if differences stem from selective pressures or from more a random succession progress. As most microbial habitats are not as well studied as the human gut, we know little about microbial community assembly and succession.
Also, in ecology a disturbance to a particular community is generally considered as a starting point for a new succession process. This process may, or may not, return the community to the same stable state. However, if the disturbance was of permanent nature, the new community will have to adapt to the new conditions, and the stable state will likely not have the same species distribution. Such an adaption could be caused by genetic changes (which would clearly be an evolutionary process), or by simple replacement of sensitive species with tolerant ones. The latter would be a selective process, but not necessarily an evolutionary one. If the selection does not alter the genetic material within the species, but only the species composition, I would argue that this is also a case of succession.
Complications with resistance
This complicates the work with metagenomic data. If we study antibiotic resistance genes, and say that bacteria in an environment have evolved antibiotic resistance, we base that assertion on that genes responsible for resistance have either evolved within the present bacteria, or have (more likely) been transferred into the genomes of the bacteria via horizontal gene transfer. However, if the resistance profile we see is simply caused by a replacement of sensitive species with resistant ones, we have not really discovered something new evolving, but are only witnessing spread of already resistant bacteria. In the gut, this would be a problem by itself, but say that we do the same study in the open environment. We already know that environmental bacteria have contained resistance genes for ages, so the real threat to human health here would be a spread from naturally resistant bacteria to human pathogens. However, as mentioned earlier, without extremely well thought-through methodology we cannot really see such transmissions of resistance genes. Here, the search for mobile elements, and large-scale takes on community composition vs. resistance profiles in contaminated and non-polluted areas can play a huge role in shedding light on the question of spreading. However, this will require larger and better planned experiments using metagenomics than what is generally performed at the moment. The questions of microbial community assembly, dispersal, succession and adaption are still largely unanswered, and our metagenomic and environmental sequencing approaches have just started to tinker around with the lid of the jar.
It seriously worries me that a number of indications recently have pointed to that the heavy use of antibiotics does not only drive antibiotic resistance development, but also the development towards more virulent and aggressive strains of pathogenic bacteria. First, the genome sequencing of the E. coli strain that caused the EHEC outbreak in Germany in May revealed not only antibiotic resistance genes, but also is also able to make Shiga toxin, which is causes the severe diarrhoea and kidney damage related to the haemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). The genes encoding the Shiga toxin are not originally bacterial genes, but instead seem to originate from phages. When E. coli gets infected with a Shiga toxin-producing phage, it becomes a human pathogen . David Acheson, managing director for food safety at consulting firm Leavitt Partners, says that exposure to antibiotics might be enhancing the spread of Shiga toxin-producing phage. Some antibiotics triggers what is referred to as the SOS response, which induces the phage to start replicating. The replication of the phage causes the bacteria to burst, releasing the phages, and with them the toxin .
Second, there is apparently an ongoing outbreak of scarlet fever in Hong Kong. Kwok-Yung Yuen, microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, has analyzed the draft sequence of the genome, and suggests that the bacteria acquired greater virulence and drug resistance by picking up one or more genes from bacteria in the human oral and urogenital tracts. He believes that the overuse of antibiotics is driving the emergence of drug resistance in these bacteria .
Now, both of these cases are just indications, but if they are true that would be an alarming development, where the use of antibiotics promotes the spread not only of resistance genes, impairing our ability to treat bacterial infections, but also the development of far more virulent and aggressive strains. Combining increasing untreatability with increasing aggressiveness seems to me like the ultimate weapon against our relatively high standards of treatment of common infections. Good thing hand hygiene still seems to help .
- Phage on the rampage (http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110609/full/news.2011.360.html), Published online 9 June 2011, Nature, doi:10.1038/news.2011.360
- Mutated Bacteria Drives Scarlet Fever Outbreak (http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2011/06/mutated-bacteria-drives-scarlet.html?etoc&elq=cd94aa347dca45b3a82f144b8213e82b), Published online 27 June 2011.
- Luby SP, Halder AK, Huda T, Unicomb L, Johnston RB (2011) The Effect of Handwashing at Recommended Times with Water Alone and With Soap on Child Diarrhea in Rural Bangladesh: An Observational Study. PLoS Med 8(6): e1001052. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001052 (http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001052)
So, last week I started my Ph.D. in Joakim Larsson’s group at the Sahlgrenska Academy. While I am very happy about how things have evolved, I will also miss the ecotox group and the functional genomics group a lot (though both do their research within 10 minutes walking distance from my new place…) I spent last week getting through the usual administrative hassle; getting keys and cards, signing papers, installing bioinformatics software on my new monster of a computer etc. Slowly, the new room starts to feel like it is mine (after nailing phylogenetic trees, my favorite map of the amino acids, and my remember-why-Cytoscape-visualisation-might-not-be-a-good-idea-for-all-network-like-structures poster to the billboard).
So what will this change of positions mean? Will I quit doing research on microbial communities? Of course not! In my new position, my subject of investigation will be bacterial communities subjected to antibiotics. We will look for resistance genes in such communities, and try to answer questions like: How do a high antibiotic selection pressure affect abundance of resistance genes and mobile elements that could facilitate their transfer between bacteria? Can resistance genes found in environmental bacteria be transferred to the microbes of the human gut? Can the environmental bacteria tell us what resistance genes that will be present in clinical situations in the near future? All these questions could, at least partially, be answered by metagenomic approaches and good bioinformatics tools, and my role will be to come up with the solutions provide answers to them.
I am excited over this new project, which involves my favorite subject – metagenomics and community analysis – as well as important factors, such as the clinical connections, the possibility to add pieces to the antibiotic resistance puzzle, and the role of gene and species transfer in resistance development. I also like the fact that I will need to handle high-throughput sequence data, meaning that there will be many opportunities to develop tools, a task I highly enjoy. I think the next couple of years will be an exciting time.