Elevation of antibiotic resistance genes at cold temperatures: implications for winter storage of sludge and biosolids

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Prior research suggests that cold temperatures may stimulate the proliferation of certain antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) and gene transfer elements during storage of biosolids. This could have important implications on cold weather storage of biosolids, as often required in northern climates until a time suitable for land application. In this study, levels of an integron-associated gene (intI1) and an ARG (sul1) were monitored in biosolids subject to storage at 4, 10 and 20°C. Both intI1 and sul1 were observed to increase during short-term storage (<2 months), but the concentrations returned to background within 4 months. The increases in concentration were more pronounced at lower temperatures than ambient temperatures. Overall, the results suggest that cold stress may induce horizontal gene transfer of integron-associated ARGs and that biosolids storage conditions should be considered prior to land application.Significance and Impact of the Study:Wastewater treatment plants have been identified as the hot spots for the proliferation and dissemination of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) and antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB) to the environment through discharge of treated effluent to water bodies as well as application of biosolids to land. Identifying critical control points within the treatment process may aid in the development of solutions for the reduction of ARGs and ARB and curbing the spread of antibiotic resistance. This study found increases in ARGs during biosolids storage and identifies changes in operational protocols that could help reduce ARG loading to the environment when biosolids are land-applied.

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