Metagenomic analysis reveals wastewater treatment plants as hotspots of antibiotic resistance genes and mobile genetic elements

Water Res. 2017 Oct 15;123:468-478. doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2017.07.002. Epub 2017 Jul 2.


The intensive use of antibiotics results in their continuous release into the environment and the subsequent widespread occurrence of antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB), antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) and mobile genetic elements (MGEs). This study used Illumina high-throughput sequencing to investigate the broad-spectrum profiles of both ARGs and MGEs in activated sludge and anaerobically digested sludge from a full-scale wastewater treatment plant. A pipeline for identifying antibiotic resistance determinants was developed that consisted of four categories: gene transfer potential, ARG potential, ARGs pathway and ARGs phylogenetic origin. The metagenomic analysis showed that the activated sludge and the digested sludge exhibited different microbial communities and changes in the types and occurrence of ARGs and MGEs. In total, 42 ARGs subtypes were identified in the activated sludge, while 51 ARG subtypes were detected in the digested sludge. Additionally, MGEs including plasmids, transposons, integrons (intI1) and insertion sequences (e.g. ISSsp4, ISMsa21 and ISMba16) were abundant in the two sludge samples. The co-occurrence pattern between ARGs and microbial taxa revealed by network analysis indicated that some environmental bacteria (e.g. Clostridium and Nitrosomonas) might be potential hosts of multiple ARGs. The findings increase our understanding of WWTPs as hotspots of ARGs and MGEs, and contribute towards preventing their release into the downstream environment.

Keywords: Antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs); Antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB); Antibiotics; Biological wastewater treatment; Metagenomics; Mobile genetic elements (MGEs).

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents*
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Drug Resistance, Microbial
  • Genes, Bacterial
  • High-Throughput Screening Assays
  • Phylogeny
  • Waste Water*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Waste Water