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Water Research
Vol. 91, 2016, Pages: 1–10

Antibiotic resistance genes and human bacterial pathogens: Co-occurrence, removal, and enrichment in municipal sewage sludge digesters

Feng Ju, Bing Li, Liping Ma, Yubo Wang, Danping Huang, Tong Zhang

Environmental Biotechnology Lab, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong SAR, China.


Understanding which/how antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) contribute to increased acquisition of resistance by pathogens in aquatic environments are challenges of profound significance. We explored the co-occurrence and removal versus enrichment of ARGs and human bacterial pathogens (HBPs) in municipal sewage sludge digesters. We combined metagenomic detection of a wide spectrum of 323 ARGs and 83 HBPs with a correlation-based statistical approach and charted a network of their co-occurrence relationships. The results indicate that most ARGs and a minor proportion of HBPs (mainly Collinsella aerofaciens, Streptococcus salivarius and Gordonia bronchialis) could not be removed by anaerobic digestion, revealing a biological risk of post-digestion sludge in disseminating antibiotic resistance and pathogenicity. Moreover, preferential co-occurrence patterns were evident within one ARG type (e.g., multidrug, beta-lactam, and aminoglycoside) and between two different ARG types (i.e., aminoglycoside and beta-lactam), possibly implicating co-effects of antibiotic selection pressure and co-resistance on shaping antibiotic resistome in sewage sludge. Unlike beta-lactam resistance genes, ARGs of multidrug and macrolide-lincosamide-streptogramin tended to co-occur more with HBPs. Strikingly, we presented evidence that the most straightforward biological origin of an ARG-species co-occurring event is a hosting relationship. Furthermore, a significant and robust HBP-species co-occurrence correlation provides a proper scenario for nominating HBP indicators (e.g.,Bifidobacterium spp. are perfect indicators of C. aerofaciens; r = 0.92–0.99 and P-values < 0.01). Combined, this study demonstrates a creative and effective network-based metagenomic approach for exploring ARG hosts and HBP indicators and assessing ARGs acquisition by HBPs in human-impacted environments where ARGs and HBPs may co-thrive.

Graphical abstract

Keywords: Antibiotic resistance genes; Human bacterial pathogens; Metagenomics; Network analysis; Sewage sludge; Anaerobic digesters.

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