Metagenomics reveals the impact of wastewater treatment plants on the dispersal of microorganisms and genes in aquatic sediments

Binh T.T. Chu, Morgan L. Petrovich, Adit Chaudhary, Dorothy Wright, Brian Murphy, George Wells, Rachel Poretsky*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) release treated effluent containing mobile genetic elements (MGEs), antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs), and microorganisms into the environment, yet little is known about their influence on nearby microbial communities and the retention of these factors in receiving water bodies. Our research aimed to characterize the genes and organisms from two different WWTPs that discharge into Lake Michigan, as well as from surrounding lake sediments to determine the dispersal and fate of these factors with respect to distance from the effluent outfall. Shotgun metagenomics coupled to distance-decay analyses showed a higher abundance of genes identical to those in WWTP effluent genes in sediments closer to outfall sites than in sediments farther away, indicating their possible WWTP origin. We also found genes attributed to organisms, such as those belonging to Helicobacteraceae, Legionellaceae, Moraxellaceae, and Neisseriaceae, in effluent from both WWTPs and decreasing in abundance in lake sediments with increased distance from WWTPs. Moreover, our results showed that the WWTPs likely influence the ARG composition in lake sediments close to the effluent discharge. Many of these ARGs were located on MGEs in both the effluent and sediment samples, indicating a relatively broad propensity for horizontal gene transfer (HGT). Our approach allowed us to specifically link genes to organisms and their genetic context, providing insight into WWTP impacts on natural microbial communities. Overall, our results suggest a substantial influence of wastewater effluent on gene content and microbial community structure in the sediments of receiving water bodies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere02168-17
JournalApplied and Environmental Microbiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018


  • Antibiotic resistance
  • Freshwater
  • Lakes
  • Metagenomics
  • Wastewater treatment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Food Science
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Ecology

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