Comparison of Cefotaxime-Resistant Escherichia coli and sul1 and intI1 by qPCR for Monitoring of Antibiotic Resistance of Wastewater, Surface Water, and Recycled Water
Awareness of the need for surveillance of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in water environments is growing, but there is uncertainty regarding appropriate monitoring targets. Adapting culture-based fecal indicator monitoring to include antibiotics in the media provides a potentially low-tech and accessible option, while quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) targeting key genes of interest provides a broad, quantitative measure across the microbial community. The purpose of this study was to compare findings obtained from the culture of cefotaxime-resistant (cefR) Escherichia coli with two qPCR methods for quantification of antibiotic resistance genes across wastewater, recycled water, and surface waters. The culture method was a modification of US EPA Method 1603 for E. coli, in which cefotaxime is included in the medium to capture cefR strains, while qPCR methods quantified sul1 and intI1. A common standard operating procedure for each target was applied to samples collected by six water utilities across the United States and processed by two laboratories. The methods performed consistently, and all three measures reflected the same overarching trends across water types. The qPCR detection of sul1 yielded the widest dynamic range of measurement as an AMR indicator (7-log versus 3.5-log for cefR E. coli), while intI1 was the most frequently detected target (99% versus 96.5% and 50.8% for sul1 and cefR E. coli, respectively). All methods produced comparable measurements between labs (p < 0.05, Kruskal–Wallis). Further study is needed to consider how relevant each measure is to capturing hot spots for the evolution and dissemination of AMR in the environment and as indicators of AMR-associated human health risk.