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ISSE Project: Understanding the Spread of Antibiotic Genes from Wastewater Treatment Plants

Team: Qiang He, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Terry C. Hazen, Civil and Environmental Engineering/Earth and Planetary Science/Microbiology

2015-2016 Funded Proposal

The intensive use of antibiotics for humans and animals has resulted in their continuous release into the environment. The main concern for the release of antibiotics into the environment is the development of antibiotic-resistant genes and antibiotic resistant bacteria, which threaten the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infectious diseases.

One major knowledge gap for the identification of strategies and actions to effectively mitigate antibiotic resistance is the lack of understanding of the prevalence and mechanisms of antibiotic resistance development in the environment. Municipal wastewater is the primary channel for the release of consumed antibiotics into the environment. Therefore, wastewater treatment plants, where bacteria are used for treatment, are believed to be probable hotspots for antibiotic resistance development because of the simultaneous presence of residual antibiotics and an extremely large number of bacteria. Thus, effluents from wastewater treatment plants are suspected to be among the main sources for antibiotic-resistant genes to spread into the environment.

With the primary objective of this project to prevent antibiotic resistance via the optimization of wastewater treatment processes to mitigate the spread of antibiotic-resistant genes, the specific aims of this project is to identify key processes linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant genes in wastewater treatment plants using cutting-edge metagenomics technology. The research team will take samples of wastewater and treated effluent from a wastewater treatment plant at multiple points (see figure below). The samples will be analyzed and compared using metagenomics techniques to identify the presence of potential antibiotic-resistant genes. The use of metagenomics approaches is greatly advantageous as compared to conventional culture-based techniques, which suffer from the limitation that the large majority of microorganisms in the environment are non-culturable.

diagram of process
Sampling points in wastewater treatment plants