Biosolids for safe land application: does wastewater treatment plant size matters when considering antibiotics, pollutants, microbiome, mobile genetic elements and associated resistance genes?
Soil fertilization with wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) biosolids is associated with the introduction of resistance genes (RGs), mobile genetic elements (MGEs) and potentially selective pollutants (antibiotics, heavy metals, disinfectants) into soil. Not much data are available on the parallel analysis of biosolid pollutant contents, RG/MGE abundances and microbial community composition. In the present study, DNA extracted from biosolids taken at 12 WWTPs (two large-scale, six middle-scale and four small-scale plants) was used to determine the abundance of RGs and MGEs via quantitative real-time PCR and the bacterial and archaeal community composition was assessed by 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing. Concentrations of heavy metals, antibiotics, the biocides triclosan, triclocarban and quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) were measured. Strong and significant correlations were revealed between several target genes and concentrations of Cu, Zn, triclosan, several antibiotics and QACs. Interestingly, the size of the sewage treatment plant (inhabitant equivalents) was negatively correlated with antibiotic concentrations, RGs and MGEs abundances and had little influence on the load of metals and QACs or the microbial community composition. Biosolids from WWTPs with anaerobic treatment and hospitals in their catchment area were associated with a higher abundance of potential opportunistic pathogens and higher concentrations of QACs.