What is it about?

Antibiotic resistance developed by bacteria is a significant threat to global health. Antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) spread across different bacterial populations through multiple dissemination routes, including horizontal gene transfer mediated by bacteriophages. ARGs carried by bacteriophages are considered especially threatening due to their prolonged persistence in the environment, fast replication rates, and ability to infect diverse bacterial hosts. Several studies employing qPCR and viral metagenomics have shown that viral fraction and viral sequence reads in clinical and environmental samples carry many ARGs. However, only a few ARGs have been found in viral contigs assembled from metagenome reads, with most of these genes lacking effective antibiotic resistance phenotypes. Owing to the wide application of viral metagenomics, nevertheless, different classes of ARGs are being continuously found in viral metagenomes acquired from diverse environments. As such, the presence and functionality of ARGs encoded by bacteriophages remain up for debate.

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Why is it important?

We evaluated ARGs excavated from viral contigs recovered from urban surface water viral metagenome data. In virome reads and contigs, diverse ARGs, including polymyxin resistance genes, multidrug efflux proteins, and β-lactamases, were identified. In particular, when a lenient threshold of e value of ≤ 1×e−5 and query coverage of ≥ 60% were employed in the Resfams database, the novel β-lactamases blaHRV-1 and blaHRVM-1 were found. These genes had unique sequences, forming distinct clades of class A and subclass B3 β-lactamases, respectively. Minimum inhibitory concentration analyses for E. coli strains harboring blaHRV-1 and blaHRVM-1 and catalytic kinetics of purified HRV-1 and HRVM-1 showed reduced susceptibility to penicillin, narrow- and extended-spectrum cephalosporins, and carbapenems. These genes were also found in bacterial metagenomes, indicating that they were harbored by actively infecting phages.


Our results showed that viruses in the environment carry as-yet-unreported functional ARGs, albeit in small quantities. We thereby suggest that environmental bacteriophages could be reservoirs of widely variable, unknown ARGs that could be disseminated via virus-host interactions.

Professor Sang Hee Lee
Myongji University

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This page is a summary of: Freshwater viral metagenome reveals novel and functional phage-borne antibiotic resistance genes, Microbiome, June 2020, Springer Science + Business Media, DOI: 10.1186/s40168-020-00863-4.
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