Molecular investigation of the chlorine and antibiotic resistance mechanisms of Escherichia coli isolated from natural water sources in the Western Cape
Water is used for various purposes and contamination can have severe implications if untreated. One of the most common and cost effective water disinfectants, especially used in developing countries, is chlorine. However, microorganisms have developed different mechanisms in response to environmental stress conditions, such as the viable but nonculturable (VBNC) effects possibly displayed in this study, enabling them to survive. Chlorine may also exert several effects on microorganisms, such as the expression of multi-substrate efflux pumps, decreased membrane permeability and transport inhibition that may lead to chlorine tolerance and antimicrobial resistance. In a descriptive and comparative study, the molecular characteristics of E. coli strains isolated from environmental waters in the Western Cape and the possible relationship between chlorination and antimicrobial resistance were investigated. Water and biofilm samples were exposed to chlorine, as well as efflux pump inhibitor (EPI) concentrations, and surviving E. coli strains were tested for their phenotypic characteristics including antimicrobial susceptibility profiles and morphological types. Candidate genes possibly involved in resistance to antimicrobials, disinfection and efflux pumps were detected with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and sequenced. Sequencing analysis and homology searches were done and E. coli strains were typed as either Enteropathogenic E. coli strains (EPEC) or Enterotoxigenic E. coli strains (ETEC) on the presence of virulence genes. All water and biofilm sources examined were heavily polluted with E. coli, and a high enumeration level of this indicator organism of faecal contamination was recorded. Chlorine tolerance was found to be associated with antimicrobial resistance. Addition of EPI with exposure to chlorine decreased enumeration levels of these organisms, suggesting that efflux pumps may play a role in tolerance to chlorine. Several morphological patterns were described amongst the E. coli strains and a change in this was recorded after exposure to chlorine. Highly resistant antibiograms displayed by the isolated strains included ampC β-lactamase producing E. coli strains and extended spectrum β-lactamases (ESBLs). Amplification of the candidate genes selected for heatshock, oxidative stress genes and efflux pump were most frequently detected while the structural genes involved in fluoroquinolones (FQs) resistance were detected less frequently in the selected strains. Sequencing of these amplified candidate genes demonstrated various changes in amino acid sequences, including one common mutational pathway taken by E. coli when exposed to stress conditions. Further homology searches of the sequenced candidate genes illustrated similarities in 19 pathogenic and 14 non-pathogenic E. coli as well as 3 Shigella strains. Detection of virulence genes found three EPEC strains (bfpA, eaeA), two EPEC (eaeA), ten EPEC (bfpA) and one ETEC strain (st) amongst the isolates. This study underlines the need for monitoring our water sources, which poses a public health risk due to incomplete chlorination, antimicrobial resistance and the spread of clinically relevant pathogenic strains.