Antibiotic resistance gene load and irrigation intensity determine the impact of wastewater irrigation on antimicrobial resistance in the soil microbiome

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Treated wastewater (TWW) irrigation is a useful counter-measure against the depletion of freshwater (FW) resources. However, TWW contains several contaminants of emerging concern, such as antibiotic resistant bacteria (ARB) and antibiotic resistant genes (ARGs). Thus, TWW irrigation might promote the spread of antimicrobial resistance in soil environments. In the present work, we hypothesized that the ARG load and irrigation intensity define the effect of TWW irrigation on ARG spread dynamics in soil. This hypothesis was tested using a multiphase approach: a) comparing soil from a full-scale, commercially operated, TWW irrigated field with non-irrigated soil, b) long-term sampling of the TWW irrigated field over one year with different irrigation intensities and intercepted by irrigation breaks and c) laboratory-scale soil microcosms irrigated with TWW compared to FW. Six ARGs, the integrase gene intI1 and the 16S rRNA were quantified using qPCR. In addition, effects of TWW irrigation on bacterial community composition of microcosm-samples were analysed with 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing. The genes sul1, qnrS, blaOXA-58, tet(M) and intI1 were significantly more abundant in the TWW irrigated field soil, whereas blaCTX-M-32 and blaTEM, the least abundant genes in the TWW irrigation, showed higher abundance in the non-irrigated soil. The relative abundance of sul1, qnrS, blaOXA-58, tet(M) and intI1 correlated with TWW irrigation intensity and decreased during irrigation breaks. Despite the decrease, the levels of these genes remained consistently higher than the non-irrigated soil indicating persistence upon their introduction into the soil. Microcosm experiments verified observations from the field study: TWW irrigation promoted the spread of ARGs and intI1 into soil at far elevated levels compared to FW irrigation. However, the impact of TWW irrigation on 16S rRNA absolute abundance and the soil microbial community composition was negligible. In conclusion, the impact of TWW irrigation depends mainly on the introduced ARG load and the irrigation intensity.


Original languageGerman
JournalWater research
Publication statusPublished - 2021

External IDs

Scopus 85100509693
ORCID /0000-0002-4169-6548/work/142247351
ORCID /0000-0002-9301-1803/work/161409753



  • ARGs, freshwater irrigation, topsoil, treated wastewater irrigation, wastewater reuse

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