Third-generation cephalosporins are a class of ß-lactam antibiotics that are often used for the treatment of human infections caused by Gram-negative bacteria, especially Escherichia coli. Worryingly, the incidence of human infections caused by third-generation cephalosporin-resistant E. coli is increasing worldwide. Recent studies have suggested that these E. coli strains, and their antibiotic resistance genes, can spread from food-producing animals, via the food-chain, to humans. However, these studies used traditional typing methods, which may not have provided sufficient resolution to reliably assess the relatedness of these strains. We therefore used whole-genome sequencing (WGS) to study the relatedness of cephalosporin-resistant E. coli from humans, chicken meat, poultry and pigs. One strain collection included pairs of human and poultry-associated strains that had previously been considered to be identical based on Multi-Locus Sequence Typing, plasmid typing and antibiotic resistance gene sequencing. The second collection included isolates from farmers and their pigs. WGS analysis revealed considerable heterogeneity between human and poultry-associated isolates. The most closely related pairs of strains from both sources carried 1263 Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) per Mbp core genome. In contrast, epidemiologically linked strains from humans and pigs differed by only 1.8 SNPs per Mbp core genome. WGS-based plasmid reconstructions revealed three distinct plasmid lineages (IncI1- and IncK-type) that carried cephalosporin resistance genes of the Extended-Spectrum Beta-Lactamase (ESBL)- and AmpC-types. The plasmid backbones within each lineage were virtually identical and were shared by genetically unrelated human and animal isolates. Plasmid reconstructions from short-read sequencing data were validated by long-read DNA sequencing for two strains. Our findings failed to demonstrate evidence for recent clonal transmission of cephalosporin-resistant E. coli strains from poultry to humans, as has been suggested based on traditional, low-resolution typing methods. Instead, our data suggest that cephalosporin resistance genes are mainly disseminated in animals and humans via distinct plasmids.
Journal: PLoS genetics