High Throughput Analysis of Integron Gene Cassettes in Wastewater Environments

Integrons are extensively targeted as a proxy for anthropogenic impact in the environment. We developed a novel high-throughput amplicon sequencing pipeline that enables characterization of thousands of integron gene cassette-associated reads, and applied it to acquire a comprehensive overview of gene cassette composition in effluents from wastewater treatment facilities across Europe. Between 38 100 and 172 995 reads per-sample were generated and functionally characterized by screening against nr, SEED, ARDB and β-lactamase databases. Over 75% of the reads were characterized as hypothetical, but thousands were associated with toxin-antitoxin systems, DNA repair, cell membrane function, detoxification and aminoglycoside and β-lactam resistance. Among the reads characterized as β-lactamases, the carbapenemase <i>bla</i><sub>OXA</sub> was dominant in most of the effluents, except for Cyprus and Israel where <i>bla</i><sub>GES</sub> was also abundant. Quantitative PCR assessment of <i>bla</i><sub>OXA</sub> and <i>bla</i><sub>GES</sub> genes in the European effluents revealed similar trends to those displayed in the integron amplicon sequencing pipeline described above, corroborating the robustness of this method and suggesting that these integron-associated genes may be excellent targets for source tracking of effluents in downstream environments. Further application of the above analyses revealed several order-of-magnitude reductions in effluent-associated β-lactamase genes in effluent-saturated soils, suggesting marginal persistence in the soil microbiome.