A survey of sub-inhibitory concentrations of antibiotics in the environment

Michael R. Gillings , Louise K.M. Chow , Timothy M. Ghaly


Received December 19, 2019,Revised , Accepted May 31, 2020, Available online June 24, 2020

Volume 33,2021,Pages 21-27

Antibiotics are poorly metabolized, and can enter the environment via human waste streams, agricultural run-off and pharmaceutical effluent. We consequently expect to see a concentration gradient of antibiotic compounds radiating from areas of human population. Such antibiotics should be thought of as pollutants, as they can accumulate, and have biological effects. These antibiotic pollutants can increase rates of mutation and lateral transfer events, and continue to exert selection pressure even at sub-inhibitory concentrations. Here, we conducted a literature survey on environmental concentrations of antibiotics. We collated 887 data points from 40 peer-reviewed papers. We then determined whether these concentrations were biologically relevant by comparing them to their minimum selective concentrations, usually defined as between 1/4 and 1/230 of the minimum inhibitory concentration. Environmental concentrations of antibiotics surveyed often fall into this range. In general, the antibiotic concentrations recorded in aquatic and sediment samples were similar. These findings indicate that environmental concentrations of antibiotics are likely to be influencing microbial ecology, and to be driving the selection of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

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