The Changing Face of Water: A Dynamic Reflection of Antibiotic Resistance Across Landscapes

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Little is known about the role of surface water in the propagation of antibiotic resistance (AR), or the relationship between AR and water quality declines. While healthcare and agricultural sectors are considered the main contributors to AR dissemination, few studies have been conducted in their absence. Using linear models and Bayesian kriging, we evaluate AR among Escherichia coli water isolates collected bimonthly from the Chobe River in Northern Botswana (n = 1997, n = 414 water samples; July 2011–May 2012) in relation to water quality dynamics (E. coli, fecal coliform, and total suspended solids), land use, season, and AR in wildlife and humans within this system. No commercial agricultural or large medical facilities exist within this region. Here, we identify widespread AR in surface water, with land use and season significant predicators of AR levels. Mean AR was significantly higher in the wet season than the dry season (p = 0.003), and highest in the urban landscape (2.15, SD = 0.098) than the protected landscape (1.39, SD = 0.051). In-water E. coli concentrations were significantly positively associated with mean AR in the wet season (p < 0.001) but not in the dry season (p = 0.110), with TSS negatively associated with mean AR across seasons (p = 0.016 and p = 0.029), identifying temporal and spatial relationships between water quality variables and AR. Importantly, when human, water, and wildlife isolates were examined, similar AR profiles were identified (p < 0.001). Our results suggest that direct human inputs are sufficient for extensive dispersal of AR into the environment, with landscape features, season, and water quality variables influencing AR dynamics. Focused and expensive efforts to minimize pollution from agricultural sources, while important, may only provide incremental benefits to the management of AR across complex landscapes. Controlling direct human AR inputs into the environment remains a critical and pressing challenge.

Antibiotic resistance, Water quality, Escherichia coli, Botswana, Dryland system