Wastewater treatment plant resistomes are shaped by bacterial composition, genetic exchange, and upregulated expression in the effluent microbiomes

ISME J. 2019 Feb;13(2):346-360. doi: 10.1038/s41396-018-0277-8. Epub 2018 Sep 24.


Wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) are implicated as hotspots for the dissemination of antibacterial resistance into the environment. However, the in situ processes governing removal, persistence, and evolution of resistance genes during wastewater treatment remain poorly understood. Here, we used quantitative metagenomic and metatranscriptomic approaches to achieve a broad-spectrum view of the flow and expression of genes related to antibacterial resistance to over 20 classes of antibiotics, 65 biocides, and 22 metals. All compartments of 12 WWTPs share persistent resistance genes with detectable transcriptional activities that were comparatively higher in the secondary effluent, where mobility genes also show higher relative abundance and expression ratios. The richness and abundance of resistance genes vary greatly across metagenomes from different treatment compartments, and their relative and absolute abundances correlate with bacterial community composition and biomass concentration. No strong drivers of resistome composition could be identified among the chemical stressors analyzed, although the sub-inhibitory concentration (hundreds of ng/L) of macrolide antibiotics in wastewater correlates with macrolide and vancomycin resistance genes. Contig-based analysis shows considerable co-localization between resistance and mobility genes and implies a history of substantial horizontal resistance transfer involving human bacterial pathogens. Based on these findings, we propose future inclusion of mobility incidence (M%) and host pathogenicity of antibiotic resistance genes in their quantitative health risk ranking models with an ultimate goal to assess the biological significance of wastewater resistomes with regard to disease control in humans or domestic livestock.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / analysis
  • Bacteria / drug effects
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / metabolism
  • Drug Resistance, Bacterial / genetics*
  • Gene Transfer, Horizontal
  • Genes, Bacterial
  • Metagenome
  • Metagenomics
  • Microbiota*
  • Transcriptome
  • Up-Regulation
  • Waste Disposal, Fluid
  • Wastewater / chemistry
  • Wastewater / microbiology*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Waste Water