Emission and dispersal of antibiotic resistance genes through bioaerosols generated during the treatment of municipal sewage.


Wastewater treatment plants act as socio-ecological couplers through the concentration, treatment, and subsequent environmental release of sewage collected from surrounding communities and are often considered hotspots for antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB) and antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs). While studies have identified the release of ARB/ARGs in treated liquid sewage, little is known about potential dispersal through wastewater bioaerosol emissions. The aim of this study was to better define the contribution of WWTP bioaerosols to potential environmental distribution of ARB/ARGs. Bioaerosols were collected immediately upwind and downwind from the aeration tanks of a municipal wastewater treatment plant and liquid sludge samples were obtained from the aeration tanks. From the bioaerosol and liquid samples, qPCR assays identified 44 ARGs that confer resistance to a wide range of antibiotics. Comparison of the ARG profiles across samples showed that the downwind bioaerosol profile was 68% similar to the profile found in liquid sludge samples. Community 16S rRNA gene sequencing also showed that downwind bioaerosols had similar taxonomic profiles as those generated from liquid sludge while the upwind profiles showed a distinct difference. Preliminary ARG dispersion modeling estimated an ARG emission rate of ~10,620 genes per hour from the liquid sludge and indicated that the bioaerosols have the potential to be carried kilometers away from the WWTP source based on wind speed. The overall results from this study suggest that bioaerosols generated during WWTP processes can aid in the emission and dispersal of bacteria and ARGs, resulting in a possible route of human exposure and deposition into surrounding environments.

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