Needles in haystacks: monitoring the potential escape of bioaerosolised antibacterial resistance genes from wastewater treatment plants with air and phyllosphere sampling

Can J Microbiol. 2024 Apr 12. doi: 10.1139/cjm-2023-0226. Online ahead of print.


Wastewater treatment plants are well-known point sources of emissions of antibacterial resistance genes (ARGs) into the environment. Although most work to date has focused on ARG dispersal via effluent, aerial dispersal in bioaerosols is a poorly understood, but likely important vector for ARG dispersal. Recent evidence suggests that ARG profiles of the conifer needle phyllosphere could be used to measure bioaerosol dispersal from anthropogenic sources. Here, we assessed airborne dispersal of ARGs from wastewater treatment plants in Wales, UK and Quebec, Canada, using conifer needles as passive bioaerosol monitors. ARG profiles of wastewater were compared to those of conifer phyllosphere using high-throughput qPCR. ARG richness was significantly lower in conifer phyllosphere samples than wastewater samples, though no differences were observed across the dispersal gradients. Mean copy number of ARGs followed a similar trend. ARG profiles showed limited, but consistent patterns with increasing distance from wastewater treatment plants, but these did not align with those of wastewater samples. For example, proportional abundance of aminoglycosides decreased over the dispersal gradient in Wales, whereas mobile genetic elements showed the inverse relationship. In summary, while distinct ARG profiles exist along dispersal gradients, links to those of wastewater were not apparent.

Keywords: bioaerosols; biomonitoring; conifers; environmental AMR; high-throughput qPCR.