Surface waters worldwide are contaminated by pharmaceutical products that are released into the environment from wastewater treatment plants. Here, we hypothesize that pharmaceutical products have effects on organisms as well as genes related to nutrient cycling in complex microbial communities. To test this hypothesis, biofilms were grown in reactors and subjected low concentrations of three antibiotics [erythromycin, ER, sulfamethoxazole, SL and sulfamethazine, SN) and a lipid regulator (gemfibrozil, GM). Total community RNA was extracted and sequenced together with PCR amplicons of the 16S rRNA gene using 454 pyrosequencing. Exposure to pharmaceutical products resulted in very little change in bacterial community composition at the phylum level based on 16S rRNA gene amplicons, even though some genera were significantly affected. In contrast, large shifts were observed in the active community composition based on taxonomic affiliations of mRNA sequences. Consequently, expression of gene categories related to N, P and C cycling were strongly affected by the presence of pharmaceutical products, with each treatment having specific effects. These results indicate that low pharmaceutical product concentrations rapidly provoke a variety of functional shifts in river bacterial communities. In the longer term these shifts in gene expression and microbial activity could lead to a disruption of important ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling.
© 2012 Society for Applied Microbiology and Blackwell Publishing Ltd.