Towards Optimization of Residual Disinfectant Application for Mutual Control of Opportunistic Pathogens and Antibiotic Resistance in In-Building Plumbing

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Virginia Tech


Opportunistic premise (i.e., building) plumbing pathogens (OPPPs) and antibiotic resistant bacteria are emerging microbial concerns in drinking water. OPPPs, such as Legionella pneumophila, are the leading cause of drinking water disease in many developed countries. Contributing factors include the relative success in controlling fecal pathogens, the presence of complex building plumbing systems that create habitats for OPPPs, and the relative resistance of OPPPs to disinfectants, and aging populations that are susceptible to infection. Concurrently, drinking water is increasingly being scrutinized as a potential environment that is conducive to horizontal gene transfer of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs), selection pressure for enhanced survival of resistant bacteria, and a route of transmission of antibiotic resistant pathogens. While maintaining a disinfectant residual is an established approach to controlling OPPPs in premise plumbing, some studies have indicated that co-resistance and cross-resistance to disinfectants can increase the relative abundances of resistant bacteria and ARGs. Thus, there may be trade-offs to controlling both OPPPs and antibiotic resistance in premise plumbing that call for controlled study aimed at optimizing residual disinfection application for this purpose.

A critical review of the scientific literature in Chapter 2 revealed that premise plumbing is a biologically and chemically complex environment, in which the choice of pipe material has cascading effects on water chemistry and the corresponding premise plumbing microbiome. This, in turn, has broad implications for the control of OPPPs, which need to be elucidated through controlled experiments in which worst case premise plumbing conditions are held constant (e.g., warm temperature), while other variables are manipulated. Chapter 3 introduces the convectively-mixed pipe reactors (CMPRs) as a novel low-cost, small footprint approach to replicably conduct such experiments. The CMPRs were demonstrated to effectively simulate key chemical and biological phenomena that occur in distal reaches of premise plumbing.

In Chapter 4, the CMPRs were leveraged to study the interactive effects of four disinfectants (chlorine, monochloramine, chlorine dioxide, and copper-silver ionization) and three pipe materials (PVC copper, and iron). The CMPRs were inoculated with two antibiotic-resistant OPPPs: Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Acinetobacter baumannii. It was found that pipe-material (PVC or PVC combined with iron or copper) profoundly impacted the water chemistry in a manner that dictated disinfection efficacy. In Chapter 5, we applied shotgun metagenomic shotgun sequencing to evaluate effects of the combination of pipe material and disinfectant type on the wider microbial community, especially their ability to select for or reduce ARGs. In Chapter 6, we used CMPRs and metagenomic sequencing in a study comparing Dutch drinking water practices to our prior testing in an American system. Dutch drinking water is of interest because of lack of historical use of disinfectants was hypothesized to result in a microbial community that is relatively depleted of ARGs or mobile genetic elements, which can enhance spread of ARGs as disinfectants are applied.

Generally, it was found that OPPPs required higher doses of disinfectants for inactivation than the general microbial community, sometimes concentrations approaching the regulatory limits in the US (e.g., 4 mg/L of total chlorine). Even successful reductions were modest, typically ~1-log, and failed to eliminate either P. aeruginosa or A. baumannii. Moreover P. aeruginosa, A. baumannii, and non-tuberculous mycobacteria varied substantially in their preference for pipe material and susceptibility to disinfectants. We found that disinfectants tended to increase the relative abundance of OPPPs, ARGs, and mobile genetic elements. Disinfectants were sometimes associated with net increases in levels of these pathogens and genes when applied at low levels (e.g., 0.1 mg/L of monochloramine), which effectively acted to reduce competition from less resistant and non-pathogenic taxa. When a low dose of monochloramine was applied to PVC CMPRs in the US, we estimated from metagenomic sequencing data that this water contained roughly 100,000 cells per milliliter of taxa known to contain pathogenic members. The Dutch drinking water exhibited more diverse microbial communities and lower relative abundances of taxa containing pathogens. ARGs were two times proportionally more abundant in CMPRs operated in the US without disinfectant than in the corresponding CMPRs operated in the Netherlands.

The findings of this dissertation can help to optimize the application of in-building disinfectant addition for addressing concerns related both to OPPPs and antibiotic resistance. The studies herein highlight the necessity of developing comprehensive OPPP and antibiotic resistance control strategies that emphasize not just disinfectant dose, but other key control parameters such as contact time, hydraulics, and temperature. The functional diversity of OPPPs, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the background premise plumbing microbiome further necessitates broad, holistic programs for monitoring and control.



Drinking water; opportunistic pathogens; antibiotic resistance; premise plumbing; metagenomics