Elevated levels of antibiotic resistance in groundwater during treated wastewater irrigation associated with infiltration and accumulation of antibiotic residues

Elsevier, Journal of Hazardous Materials, Volume 423, 5 February 2022
Kampouris I.D., Alygizakis N., Klumper U., Agrawal S., Lackner S., Cacace D. et al.

Treated wastewater irrigation (TWW) releases antibiotics and antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) into the environment and might thus promote the dissemination of antibiotic resistance in groundwater (GW). We hypothesized that TWW irrigation increases ARG abundance in GW through two potential mechanisms: the contamination of GW with resistant bacteria and the accumulation of antibiotics in GW. To test this, the GW below a real-scale TWW-irrigated field was sampled for six months. Sampling took place before, during and after high-intensity TWW irrigation. Samples were analysed with 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing, qPCR of six ARGs and the class 1 integron-integrase gene intI1, while liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry was performed to detect antibiotic and pharmaceutical residues. Absolute abundance of 16S rRNA in GW decreased rather than increased during long-term irrigation. Also, the relative abundance of TWW-related bacteria did not increase in GW during long-term irrigation. In contrast, long-term TWW irrigation increased the relative abundance of sul1 and intI1 in the GW microbiome. Furthermore, GW contained elevated concentrations of sulfonamide antibiotics, especially sulfamethoxazole, to which sul1 confers resistance. Total sulfonamide concentrations in GW correlated with sul1 relative abundance. Consequently, TWW irrigation promoted sul1 and intI1 dissemination in the GW microbiome, most likely due to the accumulation of drug residues.