A framework for standardized qPCR-targets and protocols for quantifying antibiotic resistance in surface water, recycled water and wastewater
Water environments are increasingly recognized as a conduit for the spread of antibiotic resistance, but there is need to standardize antibiotic resistance monitoring protocols to ensure comparability across studies. Quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) is attractive as a sensitive means of quantifying antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) and has been applied broadly over the past two decades to various water matrices. QPCR avoids challenges and biases associated with culture-based methods, providing a reproducible and highly sensitive measure of ARGs carried across a bacterial community. However, there are numerous quality assurance and other aspects of protocols that need to be addressed to ensure that measurements are representative and comparable across studies. Here we conducted a critical review to identify gene targets that are most commonly measured by qPCR to quantify antibiotic resistance in surface water, recycled water, and wastewater and to assess corresponding protocols. Identified targets monitored in water samples included sul1, tetA, and intI1, given their abundance and tendency to correlate with anthropogenic inputs, and vanA and blaCTX-M, as more rarely detected, but highly clinically-relevant targets. We identified 117 peer-reviewed studies meeting search criteria for application of these assays to water matrices of interest and systematically assessed the corresponding protocols, including sample collection and concentration, DNA extraction, primer/probe specificity, amplification conditions, amplicon length, PCR inhibition evaluation, and limit of detection/quantification. Gene copy numbers reported across studies were further compared by assay and water matrix. Based on this comprehensive evaluation, we recommend assays, standardized workflows, and reporting for the five target genes.