Analysis of Rural & Urban Surface Waters Identifies Human Waste as Driver of Antibiotic Resistance

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Analysis of Rural & Urban Surface Waters Identifies Human Waste as Driver of Antibiotic Resistance

Ross Stuart McInnesa, Md Hassan uz-Zamanb, Imam Taskin Alamb, Siu Fung Stanley Hoa, Robert A. Morana, John D. Clemensb, Md Sirajul Islamb, and Willem van Schaika

aInstitute of Microbiology and Infection, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom

bThe Laboratory of Food Safety and One Health, Laboratory Sciences and Services Division, International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh


In many low- and middle-income countries, antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread in the environment due to inadequate treatment of wastewater and the poorly regulated use of antibiotics in agri- and aquaculture. Here, we characterized the abundance and diversity of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and antibiotic resistance genes in surface waters and sediments in Bangladesh through quantitative culture of extended-spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL)-producing coliforms and shotgun metagenomics. Samples were collected from highly urbanized settings ( n =  7), rural ponds with a history of aquaculture-related antibiotic use ( n =  11), and rural ponds with no history of antibiotic use ( n  = 6). ESBL-producing coliforms were found to be more prevalent in urban samples than in rural samples. Shotgun sequencing showed that sediment samples were dominated by the phylum  Proteobacteria  (on average, 73.8% of assigned reads), while in the water samples,  Cyanobacteria  were the predominant phylum (on average, 60.9% of assigned reads). Antibiotic resistance genes were detected in all samples, but their abundance varied 1,525-fold between sites, with the highest levels of antibiotic resistance genes being present in urban surface water samples. The abundance of antibiotic resistance genes was significantly correlated ( R 2 = 0.73;  P =  8.9 × 10−15) with the abundance of bacteria originating from the human gut, which suggests that the release of untreated sewage is a driver for the spread of environmental antibiotic resistance genes in Bangladesh, particularly in highly urbanized settings.

IMPORTANCE  Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have higher burdens of multidrug-resistant infections than high-income countries, and there is thus an urgent need to elucidate the drivers of the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in LMICs. Here, we study the diversity and abundance of antibiotic resistance genes in surface water and sediments from rural and urban settings in Bangladesh. We found that urban surface waters are particularly rich in antibiotic resistance genes, with a higher number of them associated with plasmids, indicating that they are more likely to spread horizontally. The abundance of antibiotic resistance genes was strongly correlated with the abundance of bacteria that originate from the human gut, suggesting that uncontrolled release of human waste is a major driver for the spread of antibiotic resistance in the urban environment. Improvements in sanitation in LMICs may thus be a key intervention to reduce the dissemination of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.