Chlorine could increase antimicrobial resistance

11:39 AM, 16th February 2020
Mutagens, such as disinfection byproducts, in treated wastewater elicit a colorimetric response in this 96-well plate

Conventional wastewater disinfection using chlorine could facilitate the spread of antimicrobial resistance in bacteria 1. Treating some types of wastewater with ultraviolet (UV) light instead could be part of the solution2, according to a study at KAUST’s Water Desalination and Reuse Center, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Bacteria are rapidly developing mechanisms to evade the effects of antimicrobial drugs, and this resistance is increasingly threatening public health. Pharmaceutical compounds and resistant bacteria that reach municipal and agricultural wastewater are partially to blame. Interestingly, the antimicrobial resistance of bacteria in wastewater entering water treatment plants is lower than after the wastewater leaves the treatment plant.

This may be because during wastewater disinfection, genetic material breaks out of bacteria into the surrounding water. This extracellular DNA can contain antimicrobial resistance genes.

“The big question is are these extracellular resistance genes of concern to public health?” says KAUST postdoctoral fellow, David Mantilla-Calderon. “We don’t have an answer to this question yet, but the first prerequisite these genes must fulfill to be of concern is that they need to be harbored within a viable bacterial cell. This is only possible through a process called natural transformation, which allows extracellular DNA uptake and integration into the bacterial chromosome.”

Mantilla-Calderon and colleagues at KAUST found1 that natural transformation was stimulated in a bacterium commonly found in water and soil, called Acinetobacter baylyi, when it was in the presence of the chlorine byproduct, bromoacetic acid. They found that this disinfection byproduct caused DNA damage in the bacterium, inducing a DNA repair pathway that is known to also increase the integration of foreign DNA into the bacterium’s genome.

Ph.D. student Nicolas Augsburger next investigated2 the effects of sunlight and one component of sunlight, UV light, on natural transformation. “We wanted to see if there was a safer way to disinfect treated wastewater without provoking an increase in natural transformation in environmental bacteria,” he explains.

Interestingly, Augsburger and his colleagues found that, similar to bromoacetic acid, treatment with either the full spectrum of sunlight or only with UV light caused increased natural transformation in Acinetobacter baylyi.

“What surprised us was the finding that after treatment with UV light, the bacterium’s genes were damaged to the extent that they were no longer functional,” says Augsburger. “Thus, although treatment with UV light increased the integration of foreign DNA into the bacterium, just like disinfection byproducts and sunlight, it will not be able to express those genes.”

“Our studies question our current reliance on the use of chlorine as the final disinfection step in most wastewater treatment plants,” says microbiologist Peiying Hong, who supervised the studies.

“A disinfection strategy using UV light could be considered for disinfecting low turbidity water. This could help in minimizing wastewater contribution to antimicrobial resistance.”

Hong’s lab is now investigating how various stressors might interact to affect uptake and integration rates of extracellular DNA into bacteria.

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