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Wastewater more potent breeding ground for antibiotic resistance than previously known


Wastewater is a more potent environment for antibiotic resistance to evolve than previously known. A study from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden shows that wastewaters have unique characteristics, allowing resistance genes to start their journey from harmless bacteria to those that cause disease.

Microorganisms have produced antibiotic molecules long before we started to use them as medicines. Accordingly, the ability of many environmental bacteria to defend themselves against antibiotics is ancient.

Since the introduction of antibiotics in clinics, disease-causing bacteria have also started to accumulate more and more resistance genes in their DNA. This still ongoing process requires that genes, that were previously well anchored in the chromosome of certain bacterial species, first gain the ability to move around and eventually jump between species.

In a study published in the journal Communications Biology, researchers at the Centre for Antibiotic Resistance Research (CARe) in Gothenburg, Sweden present evidence for where the genes could gain their ability to move.

Important to prevent the emergence

It is known that wastewaters contain residues of antibiotics that could favour the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. New evidence shows that wastewaters also have characteristics allowing the resistance genes to start their journey from harmless bacteria to disease-causing bacteria.

The researchers acknowledged that it is not sufficient antibiotics to drive the process. The species carrying the resistance genes in their chromosome also needs to be present, as well as specific sequences of DNA that could provide the ability to move the resistance genes.

By studying DNA from thousands of samples from different environments, the researchers could identify where all the key components came together. To the author's surprise, it was not in the gut of humans or animals, it was in wastewater sampled across the world.

Fanny Berglund, Institute of Biomedicine, Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg.
Photo: Göteborgs universitet

"In order to fight antibiotic resistance we cannot focus only on preventing the spread of those types of resistant bacteria that are already in circulation, we also need to prevent or delay the emergence of new ones", says Fanny Berglund, a researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy at University of Gothenburg, and the lead author of the study.

More focus on wastewater

The same research team has published several other studies showing that the environment harbours a huge variety of different resistance genes, many more than the resistance genes that we see today in bacteria causing disease.

This makes the environment a vast source for new resistance genes that one after the other acquires the ability to jump between species, to eventually end up in pathogens. The authors conclude that favouring this development by polluting the environment with antibiotics is not a good idea.

"There is a lot of focus on reducing antibiotic use in humans and animals. This is of course important, but our study shows that we also need to pay attention to our waste streams, as this seems to be a place where new variants of antibiotic resistance could emerge", concludes Fanny Berglund.

Title: Evidence for wastewaters as environments where mobile antibiotic resistance genes emerge by Fanny Berglund, Stefan Ebmeyer, Erik Kristiansson and Joakim Larsson.

Research group Joakim Larsson group