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.