A survey of drug resistance bla genes originating from synthetic plasmid vectors in six Chinese rivers

Environ Sci Technol. 2012 Dec 18;46(24):13448-54. doi: 10.1021/es302760s. Epub 2012 Dec 6.


Antibiotic resistance poses a significant challenge to human health and its rate continues to rise globally. While antibiotic-selectable synthetic plasmid vectors have proved invaluable tools of genetic engineering, this class of artificial recombinant DNA sequences with high expression of antibiotic resistance genes presents an unknown risk beyond the laboratory setting. Contamination of environmental microbes with synthetic plasmid vector-sourced antibiotic resistance genes may represent a yet unrecognized source of antibiotic resistance. In this study, PCR and real-time quantitative PCR were used to investigate the synthetic plasmid vector-originated ampicillin resistance gene, β-lactam antibiotic (blá), in microbes from six Chinese rivers with significant human interactions. Various levels of blá were detected in all six rivers, with the highest levels in the Pearl and Haihe rivers. To validate the blá pollution, environmental plasmids in the river samples were captured by the E. coli transformants from the community plasmid metagenome. The resultant plasmid library of 205 ampicillin-resistant E. coli (transformants) showed a blá-positive rate of 27.3% by PCR. Sequencing results confirmed the synthetic plasmid vector sources. In addition, results of the Kirby-Bauer disc-diffusion test reinforced the ampicillin-resistant functions of the environmental plasmids. The resistance spectrum of transformants from the Pearl and Haihe rivers, in particular, had expanded to the third- and fourth-generation of cephalosporin drugs, while that of other transformants mainly involved first- and second-generation cephalosporins. This study not only reveals environmental contamination of synthetic plasmid vector-sourced blá drug resistance genes in Chinese rivers, but also suggests that synthetic plasmid vectors may represent a source of antibiotic resistance in humans.

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology
  • Base Sequence
  • China
  • DNA, Recombinant / genetics
  • Data Collection*
  • Environmental Pollution / analysis
  • Escherichia coli / drug effects
  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Genes, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Genetic Vectors / genetics*
  • Geography
  • Humans
  • Metagenome / genetics
  • Plasmids / genetics*
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Rivers*
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • beta-Lactam Resistance / genetics*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • DNA, Recombinant