Metagenomic and metatranscriptomic investigation of microorganisms exposed to benzalkonium chloride disinfectants
Oh, Seung Dae
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Benzalkonium chlorides (BACs) are widely used, broad-spectrum disinfectants and frequently detected in the environment, even at toxic levels for life. Since such disinfectants can induce broad resistance capabilities, BACs may fuel the emergence of antibiotic resistance in the environment. A substantial body of literature has reported that exposure to BACs causes antibiotic resistance; yet, other studies suggest that the resistance linkage is rare, unsystematic, and/or clinically insignificant. Accordingly, whether or not disinfectant exposure mediates antibiotic resistance and, if so, what molecular mechanisms underlie the resistance link remains to be clearly elucidated. Further, understanding how microbial communities degrade BACs is important not only for alleviating the possible occurrence of antibiotic resistance but also reducing the potential risks to environmental and public health. An integrated strategy that combines metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, genetics, and traditional culture-dependent approaches was employed to provide novel insights into these issues. The integrative approach showed that a microbial community exposed to BACs can acquire antibiotic resistance through two mechanisms: i) horizontal transfer of previously uncharacterized efflux pump genes conferring resistance to BACs and antibiotics, which were encoded on a conjugative plasmid and co-selected together upon BACs and ii) selective enrichment of intrinsically multi-drug resistant organisms. Further, a microbial community adapts to BAC exposure via a variety of mechanisms, including selective enrichment of BAC-degrading species and amino acid substitutions and horizontal transfer of genes related to BAC resistance and degradation. The metatranscriptomic data suggests that the BAC-adapted microbial community metabolized BACs by cooperative interactions among its members. More specifically, Pseudomonas nitroreducens cleaved (i.e., dealkylated) BACs, metabolized the alkyl chain (the dealkylated product of BACs), and released benzyldimethylamine (the other product of BACs), which was further metabolized by other community members (e.g., Pseudomonas putida). Collectively, this study demonstrates the role of BACs in promoting antibiotic resistance and advances current understanding of a microbial community degrading BACs. The results of this work have important implications for (appropriate) usage of disinfectants and for assessing, predicting, and optimizing biological engineering processes treating BAC-bearing waste streams.