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Environ Sci Technol. 2012 Nov 6;46(21):11541-9. doi: 10.1021/es302657r. Epub 2012 Oct 12.

Correlation between upstream human activities and riverine antibiotic resistance genes.

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Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA 24061, USA.


Antimicrobial resistance remains a serious and growing human health challenge. The water environment may represent a key dissemination pathway of resistance elements to and from humans. However, quantitative relationships between landscape features and antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) have not previously been identified. The objective of this study was to examine correlations between ARGs and putative upstream anthropogenic sources in the watershed. sul1 (sulfonamide) and tet(W) (tetracycline) were measured using quantitative polymerase chain reaction in bed and suspended sediment within the South Platte River Basin, which originates from a pristine region in the Rocky Mountains and runs through a gradient of human activities. A geospatial database was constructed to delineate surface water pathways from animal feeding operations, wastewater treatment plants, and fish hatchery and rearing units to river monitoring points. General linear regression models were compared. Riverine sul1 correlated with upstream capacities of animal feeding operations (R(2) = 0.35, p < 0.001) and wastewater treatment plants (R(2) = 0.34, p < 0.001). Weighting for the inverse distances from animal feeding operations along transport pathways strengthened the observed correlations (R(2) = 0.60-0.64, p < 0.001), suggesting the importance of these pathways in ARG dissemination. Correlations were upheld across the four sampling events during the year, and averaging sul1 measurements in bed and suspended sediments over all events yielded the strongest correlation (R(2) = 0.92, p < 0.001). Conversely, a significant relationship with landscape features was not evident for tet(W), which, in contrast to sul1, is broadly distributed in the pristine region and also relatively more prevalent in animal feeding operation lagoons. The findings highlight the need to focus attention on quantifying the contribution of water pathways to the antibiotic resistance disease burden in humans and offer insight into potential strategies to control the spread of ARGs.

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