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Using microplastics to detect/predict future antibiotic-resistance genes

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jnikola Dec 27, 2021
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Although current research focuses on examining the damage of microplastics (MP) to the ecosystems or human health, there is one interesting field that is underresearched in terms of MP - antibiotic resistance.

What is it and why should we care?

Antibiotic resistance is a phenomenon that is often called "hidden pandemics". People treat bacterial diseases with antibiotics, which are becoming less effective with time . It's actually a natural process of adaptation, which in this case, goes in favor of bacteria, not humans. WHO stated that antibiotic resistance "is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today" .

How is it connected with microplastics?

One month ago, researchers published findings where they proved that
  • MPs carry bacteria that are pathogenic, due to surface hydrophobicity that promotes acclimation of biofilms
  • MPs selectively promote antibiotic-resistant and pathogenic taxa --> microplastics can enrich antibiotic resistant genes from municipal activated sludge
Recent work of another group also found that the aging microplastics (particles that were exposed to UV light for 20 days) can increase the rate of antibiotic resistance by:
  • 6.6-, 5.2- and 8.3-fold increased adsorption of E.coli (harboring plasmid-borne blaTEM-1), plasmid pET29 (harboring blaNDM-1) and phage lambda (carrying the aphA1 ARG) onto 20-day UV-aged polystirene -MP particles --> due to increased specific surface area and affinity for these ARG vectors
  • releasing more organic compounds that induce intracellular ROS generation, increase cell permeability and upregulate HGT associated genes
  • enhance ARG transfer frequency from E.coli, plasmid pET29 and phage lambda (relative to MP0, non-aged MP) by 1.3-, 4.7- and 3.5-fold

The proposed idea

Since we have the sequencing data on antibiotic-resistant and pathogenic bacteria in waters and we track and partially control their distribution in the water (in the cities), could we develop an algorithm that would track the changes in bacterial genome and other genetic elements carried by the MPs and predict what genetical change could be the most dangerous in terms of antibiotic resistance?
In other words, can we use the existing MPs in water to monitor the antibiotic-related genes (ARG) and predict which will be the next resistance-promoting gene? By knowing this, we could guide current antibiotic research into the most promising direction!


This is something I am still working on.
Does it make sense?





Creative contributions

Another good reason to eliminate/reduce (micro)plastic pollution

Povilas S
Povilas S Dec 28, 2021
Instead of or in addition to determining antibiotic-resistant genes from microplastic bacterial samples, isn't it better to put efforts to eliminate/reduce microplastic pollution thus limiting the spread and multiplication of antibiotic-resistant bacteria? Determining the next mutant gene would get us "ahead of bacteria" and let create effective antibiotics for some time, but the vicious circle of fighting antibiotic resistance would nevertheless persist.
If microplastics serve as hotspots for bacterial adherence, multiplication, and spread, eliminating them from water/environment would greatly reduce the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in drinking water and other places where they gain contact with humans, this would hence reduce the number of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.
Microplastics are present in nearly all of our drinking water, food, and other environmental mediums, thus it's very easy for antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains to enter our bodies.
Could we come up with means to effectively eliminate microplastics from our environment, apart from the obvious and best approach to eliminate/reduce plastic waste?
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jnikola3 years ago
Thank you for highlighting this! Yes, this was my hidden intention. MPs are not the only medium that is responsible for antibiotic resistance. I think it's not even in the first 10 causes of antibiotic resistance spread and development. But the intention was to put the focus on MPs as the direct health issue. This could engage more people and companies that weren't initially interested in eliminating MPs from the environment. The problem is real and you can touch it, relate with it and see it progresses, and that's what makes it a powerful spark that could potentially help create new ways of eliminating the MPs and reducing their environmental impact. Let's make it a resource, not a harmful consequence.
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General comments

Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni3 years ago
Makes sense, I think. I have a few concerns/ questions: I am assuming that the size of MPs is greater than that of the bacteria. However, since they are called MPs and are invisible to the naked eye, the handling of MPs is equivalent to that of bacteria. How then, would you sample the MPs to detect the pathogens? Also, are there any more specifications for this abiotic/ biotic association - for example, do certain species of bacteria prefer one kind of MP over the other? If that is true, can we sample the MPs accordingly and assume that the amount of specific MPs corresponds to the amount of that type of bacteria?
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jnikola3 years ago
Shubhankar Kulkarni Hmm, interesting practical questions. I did some research on it and will hopefully deliver you a suitable answer.
How then, would you sample the MPs to detect the pathogens?
I found that the size of most of the bacteria is between 0.2 and 2 μm . In the third reference mentioned above, where scientists connected antibiotic resistance and microplastics (MPs) , they worked with commercially-available products - PE and PS spherical microplastics with diameters of 85∼106 μm. That means that the MP particles were 40 times larger than bacteria and can physically be separated from the rest of the solution by centrifugation. Therefore, I would sample the water, filter it and extract the MPs. In the paper, they extracted samples of MPs with attached biofilm by simple density gradient centrifugation (MPs stay in the supernatant).
Are there any more specifications for this abiotic/ biotic association?
In the above-mentioned paper, I found these:
  • the enrichment of SA-resistant bacteria on PE regardless of the sludge source
  • In comparison with PE, PS had fewer target genes shown with a significant increase
  • when SMX (sulfamethoxazole, a model antibiotic for sulfonamide) co-existed with microparticles, almost all sul1, sul2, and intI1 genes in PE and PS biofilms were significantly enriched for all three sludge samples
  • in different ecosystems embracing river, estuary, and marine waters, sul genes were often detected at high abundances in microplastic biofilms, then other frequently detected ARGs, such as tetA, ermE, and qnrS
  • Extracellular ARGs are adsorbed at a higher fold and rate than intracellular ARGs
  • between PP, PS, PE, and RCPE MP particles, PP-MP had the highest affinity to ARGs
  • bigger particles absorbed less ARG
Figure 1. Adsorption of intracellular and extracellular antibiotic resistance genes (iARG, eARG) on different MP materials (A), MP size (B) and wastewater type (C).
With all the above-mentioned things, I would focus on sampling ALL MP particles up to 1.5 mm size (or other convenient for the laboratory setup). If the noise would be too big, I would then select only PP or PE particles of 0.1 mm size.
Did you get your answer? I think there is no additional benefit in focusing on just one type of material.





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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni3 years ago
J. Nikola Thank you! Yes, I got the answers. So to ease the entire process, the microplastics could be sorted first. All MPs belonging to the same group can then be analyzed (extract the bacteria and determine the mutations) together. This will also reduce the panel of genes or mutations that you need to identify. Each type of MP could have a different panel and the sizes of the panels will be manageable.
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