Effects of electron acceptors on removal of antibiotic resistant Escherichia coli, resistance genes and class 1 integrons under anaerobic conditions
Anaerobic biotechnologies can effectively remove antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB) and antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs), but there is a need to better understand the mechanisms. Here we employ bioelectrochemical systems (BES) as a platform to investigate the fate of a native tetracycline and sulfonamide-resistant Escherichia coli strain and its ARGs. The E. coli strain carrying intI1, sulI and tet(E) was isolated from domestic wastewater and dosed into a tubular BES. The BES was first operated as a microbial fuel cell (MFC), with aeration in the cathode, which resulted in enhanced removal of E. coli and ARGs by ~ 2 log (i.e., order of magnitude) when switched from high current to open circuit operation mode. The BES was then operated as a microbial electrolysis cell (MEC) to exclude the effects of oxygen diffusion, and the removal of E. coli and ARGs during the open circuit configuration was again 1–2 log higher than that at high current mode. Significant correlations of E. coli vs. current (R2 = 0.73) and ARGs vs. E. coli (R2 ranged from 0.54 to 0.87), and the fact that the BES substrate contained no electron acceptors, implied that the persistence of the E. coli and its ARGs was determined by the availability of indigenous electron acceptors in the BES, i.e., the anode electrode or the electron shuttles generated by the exoelectrogens. Subsequent experiments with pure-culture tetracycline and sulfonamide-resistant E. coli being incubated in a two-chamber MEC and serum bottles demonstrated that the E. coli could survive by respiring anode electrode and/or electron shuttles released by exoelectrogens, and ARGs persisted with their host E. coli.