Elucidating selection processes for antibiotic resistance in sewage treatment plants using metagenomics

Sci Total Environ. 2016 Dec 1:572:697-712. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.06.228. Epub 2016 Aug 17.


Sewage treatment plants (STPs) have repeatedly been suggested as "hotspots" for the emergence and dissemination of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A critical question still unanswered is if selection pressures within STPs, caused by residual antibiotics or other co-selective agents, are sufficient to specifically promote resistance. To address this, we employed shotgun metagenomic sequencing of samples from different steps of the treatment process in three Swedish STPs. In parallel, concentrations of selected antibiotics, biocides and metals were analyzed. We found that concentrations of tetracycline and ciprofloxacin in the influent were above predicted concentrations for resistance selection, however, there was no consistent enrichment of resistance genes to any particular class of antibiotics in the STPs, neither for biocide and metal resistance genes. The most substantial change of the bacterial communities compared to human feces occurred already in the sewage pipes, manifested by a strong shift from obligate to facultative anaerobes. Through the treatment process, resistance genes against antibiotics, biocides and metals were not reduced to the same extent as fecal bacteria. The OXA-48 gene was consistently enriched in surplus and digested sludge. We find this worrying as OXA-48, still rare in Swedish clinical isolates, provides resistance to carbapenems, one of our most critically important classes of antibiotics. Taken together, metagenomics analyses did not provide clear support for specific antibiotic resistance selection. However, stronger selective forces affecting gross taxonomic composition, and with that resistance gene abundances, limit interpretability. Comprehensive analyses of resistant/non-resistant strains within relevant species are therefore warranted.

Keywords: Antibiotic resistance genes; Co-selection; Fecal bacteria; Microbial ecology; Risk assessment; Wastewater treatment.

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / analysis
  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / drug effects
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / genetics
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial* / drug effects
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial* / genetics
  • Metagenomics / methods*
  • Metals / analysis
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Sewage / microbiology*
  • Sweden
  • Waste Disposal, Fluid / methods*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • DNA Transposable Elements
  • Metals
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • Sewage
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical