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Investigating the presence of environmental rare earth elements in activated sludge systems

The date of: 2024-01-25
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The pandemic has triggered a major increase in the use of medical facilities and drugs, which has exacerbated pollution in wastewater biochemical treatment systems. Pollution from environmental rare earth elements (REE) has increased due to the widespread use of REE in medical applications.
Gadolinium (Gd) is commonly used in contrast agents and is released as a monomer that is toxic to organisms. Studies have shown the presence of Gd in both the influent and effluent of wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). In addition, different types of antibiotics were detected in WWTPs, with some antibiotic concentrations being detected at mg/L levels.
The accumulation of antibiotics in WWTPs is detrimental to microorganisms and negatively impacts the performance of WWTPs. Therefore, the combined pollution of REE and antibiotics in wastewater cannot be ignored, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, due to the increased risk of bacterial infections, medical institutions need more sulfamethoxazole (SMX) to treat infected patients in the pandemic.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) enables visualization of pulmonary structures and assessment of COVID-19-related lung damage, inflammation, and complications like thrombosis and myocarditis. Gd is a key component of contrast agent in MRI, and the increased demand for MRI detection leads to an increase in the use of Gd. Therefore, Gd and SMX have been extensively used during this pandemic. However, the impact of co-occurring Gd and SMX in wastewater on bacterial resistance in WWTPs remains unclear.
Long-term use of antibiotics in medical, agricultural, animal husbandry, and aquaculture industries eventually leads to the dissemination of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs).
ARGs pose a serious threat to human health and environmental safety. Therefore, many researchers have studied the effects of antibiotics on ARGs in wastewater treatment systems. Studies have shown that a 55%–81% decrease in the concentration of antibiotics resulted in a 13-order of magnitude decrease in the relative abundance of ARGs in activated sludge systems.
Furthermore, scientists have noted that heavy metals drive the co-selection of ARGs and heavy metal resistance genes (MRGs). Studies have reported an increased relative abundance of ARGs and MRGs in heavy metal-polluted environments, and high concentrations of metals could promote multi-metal and multi-antibiotic resistance.
Moreover, studies have investigated the co-selection of ARGs and MRGs under combined pollution of antibiotics and heavy metals. However, only a few reports have investigated the effects of Gd on ARGs and MRGs, and the succession and transmission characteristics of resistance genes under combined Gd and antibiotics exposure remain unclear.
Quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) and 16S rRNA gene high-throughput sequencing can quantify some known ARGs and MRGs, but the mobility of ARGs and the correlation with host bacteria are unelucidated.
In addition, 16S rRNA sequencing is limited by microbial isolation and culture, and cannot detect or describe the diversity and function of complex microbial communities. As a more advanced sequencing technology, metagenomics enables the assessment of uncultured microbial genes, which greatly expands the applications of microbial resources. Moreover, metagenomic sequencing can also be used for the in-depth study of genes and functions.

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