Environmental Science and Pollution Research

, Volume 26, Issue 27, pp 28352–28360 | Cite as

The impact and mechanism of quaternary ammonium compounds on the transmission of antibiotic resistance genes

  • Yue Han
  • Zhen-Chao Zhou
  • Lin Zhu
  • Yuan-Yuan Wei
  • Wan-Qiu Feng
  • Lan Xu
  • Yang Liu
  • Ze-Jun Lin
  • Xin-Yi Shuai
  • Zhi-Jian Zhang
  • Hong ChenEmail author
Research Article


The emergence of antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs) in microbes can be largely attributed to the abuse and misuse of antibiotics and biocides. Quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) have been used worldwide as common disinfectants and detergents; however, their potential impact on the spread and diffusion of ARGs is still unknown. In this study, we detected the QAC resistance gene (qacEΔ1), the 1 integron gene (intI1), and 12 ARGs (sul1, sul2, cfr, cml, fexA, tetA, tetG, tetQ, tetX, ermB, blaTEM, and dfrA1) in 48 water samples from three watersheds by quantitative PCR (qPCR). We investigated the evolution of bacterial antibiotic resistance under QAC and antibiotic environmental pressures by long-term continuous culture. In addition, five QACs were selected to investigate the effect of QAC on the efficiency of conjugation transfer. The changes in bacterial cell membrane and production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) were detected by flow cytometry, revealing the mechanism by which QAC affects the spread of antibiotic resistance. Our results showed that the QAC resistance gene was ubiquitous in watersheds and it had significant correlation with intI1 and seven ARGs (r = 0.999, p < 0.01). QACs could increase the resistance of bacteria to multiple antibiotics. Furthermore, all five QACs promoted the conjugation transfer of the RP4 plasmid; the optimal concentration of QACs was about 10−1–10−2 mg/L and their transfer efficiencies were between 1.33 × 10−6 and 8.87 × 10−5. QACs enhanced membrane permeability of bacterial cells and stimulated bacteria to produce ROS, which potentially promoted the transfer of plasmids between bacteria. In conclusion, this study demonstrated that QACs may facilitate the evolution and gene transfer of antibiotic resistance gene among microbiome.


Antibiotic resistance gene Quaternary ammonium compounds Conjugation transfer 



This work was supported by Natural Science Foundation of China (21677121 and 41571130064).

Supplementary material

11356_2019_5673_MOESM1_ESM.docx (6.1 mb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 6274 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yue Han
    • 1
  • Zhen-Chao Zhou
    • 1
  • Lin Zhu
    • 1
  • Yuan-Yuan Wei
    • 1
  • Wan-Qiu Feng
    • 1
  • Lan Xu
    • 1
  • Yang Liu
    • 1
  • Ze-Jun Lin
    • 1
  • Xin-Yi Shuai
    • 1
  • Zhi-Jian Zhang
    • 1
  • Hong Chen
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Institute of Environmental Technology, College of Environmental and Resource SciencesZhejiang UniversityHangzhouChina

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