Last week, a paper resulting from a collaboration with Stefanie Heß and Viktor Jonsson was published in Environmental Science & Technology. In the paper, we build a quantitative model for the emergence of antibiotic resistance genes in human pathogens and populate it using the few numbers that are available on different processes (bacterial uptake, horizontal gene transfer rates, rate of mobilization of chromosomal genes, etc.) in the literature (1).
In short, we find that in order for the environment to play an important role in the appearance of novel resistance genes in pathogens, there needs to be a substantial flow of bacteria from the environment to the human microbiome. We also find that most likely the majority of resistance genes in human pathogens have very small fitness costs associated with them, if any cost at all.
The model makes three important predictions:
- The majority of ARGs present in pathogens today should have very limited effects on fitness. The model caps the average fitness impact for ARGs currently present in human pathogens between −0.2 and +0.1% per generation. By determining the fitness effects of carrying individual ARGs in their current hosts, this prediction could be experimentally tested.
- The most likely location of ARGs 70 years ago would have been in human-associated bacteria. By tracking ARGs currently present in human pathogens across bacterial genomes, it may be possible to trace the evolutionary history of these genes and thereby identify their likely hosts at the beginning of the antibiotic era, similar to what was done by Stefan Ebmeyer and his colleagues (2). What they found sort-of corroborate the findings of our model and lend support to the idea that most ARGs may not originate in the environment. However, this analysis is complicated by the biased sampling of fully sequenced bacterial genomes, most of which originate from human specimens. That said, the rapid increase in sequencing capacity may make full-scale analysis of ARG origins using genomic data possible in the near future, which would enable testing of this prediction of the model.
- If the origins of ARGs currently circulating in pathogens can be established, the range of reasonable dispersal ability levels from the environment to pathogens narrows dramatically. Similarly, if the rates of mobilization and horizontal transfer of resistance genes could be better determined by experiments, the model would predict the likely origins more precisely. Just establishing a ball-park range for the mobilization rate would dramatically restrict the possible outcomes of the model. Thus, a more precise determination of any of these parameters would enable several more specific predictions by the model.
This paper has a quite interesting backstory, beginning with me having leftover time on a bus ride in Madison (WI), thinking about whether you could quantize the conceptual framework for resistance gene emergence we described in our 2018 review paper in FEMS Reviews Microbiology (3). This spurred the first attempt at such a model, which then led to Stefanie Heß and me applying for support from the Centre for Antibiotic Resistance Research at the University of Gothenburg (CARe) to develop this idea further. We got this support and Stefanie spent a few days with me in Gothenburg developing this idea into a model we could implement in R.
However, at that point we realized we needed more modeling expertise and brought in Viktor Jonsson to make sure the model was robust. From there, it took us about 1.5 years to refine and rerun the model about a million times… By the early spring this year, we had a reasonable model that we could write a manuscript around, and this is what now is published. It’s been an interesting and very nice ride together with Stefanie and Viktor!
- Bengtsson-Palme J, Jonsson V, Heß S: What is the role of the environment in the emergence of novel antibiotic resistance genes? A modelling approach. Environmental Science & Technology, Article ASAP (2021). doi: 10.1021/acs.est.1c02977 [Paper link]
- Ebmeyer S, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: A framework for identifying the recent origins of mobile antibiotic resistance genes. Communications Biology 4 (2021). doi: 10.1038/s42003-020-01545-5
- 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 [Paper link]