At left, a scanning electron microscope image shows the mesoporous structure of molecular-imprinted graphitic carbon nitride nanosheets. At right, a transmission electron microscope image shows the sheet’s edge and its crystalline structure. Rice researchers imprinted the nanosheets to catch and kill free-floating antibiotic resistant genes found in secondary effluent produced by wastewater plants. Courtesy of the Alvarez Research Group
Rice University material ‘traps and zaps’ floating DNA that makes bacteria resistant
It’s not enough to take antibiotic-resistant bacteria out of wastewater to eliminate the risks they pose to society. The bits they leave behind have to be destroyed as well.
Researchers at Rice University’s Brown School of Engineering have a new strategy for “trapping and zapping” antibiotic resistant genes, the pieces of bacteria that, even though theirs hosts are dead, can find their way into and boost the resistance of other bacteria.
The team led by Rice environmental engineer Pedro Alvarez is using molecular-imprinted graphitic carbon nitride nanosheets to absorb and degrade these genetic remnants in sewage system wastewater before they have the chance to invade and infect other bacteria.
The researchers targeted plasmid-encoded antibiotic-resistant genes (ARG) coding for New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1 (NDM1), known to resist multiple drugs. When mixed in solution with the ARGs and exposed to ultraviolet light, the treated nanosheets proved 37 times better at destroying the genes than graphitic carbon nitride alone.
The work done under the auspices of the Rice-based Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT) is detailed in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science and Technology.
“This study addresses a growing concern, the emergence of multidrug resistant bacteria known as superbugs,” said Alvarez, director of the NEWT Center. “They are projected to cause 10 million annual deaths by 2050.
“As an environmental engineer, I worry that some water infrastructure may harbor superbugs,” he said. “For example, a wastewater treatment plant in Tianjin that we’ve studied is a breeding ground, discharging five NDM1-positive strains for each one coming in. The aeration tank is like a luxury hotel where all bacteria grow.
“Unfortunately, some superbugs resist chlorination, and resistant bacteria that die release extracellular ARGs that get stabilized by clay in receiving environments and transform indigenous bacteria, becoming resistome reservoirs. This underscores the need for technological innovation, to prevent the discharge of extracellular ARGs.
“In this paper, we discuss a trap-and-zap strategy to destroy extracellular ARGs. Our strategy is to use molecularly imprinted coatings that enhance selectivity and minimize interference by background organic compounds.”
Molecular imprinting is like making a lock that attracts a key, not unlike natural enzymes with binding sites that only fit molecules of the right shape. For this project, graphitic carbon nitride molecules are the lock, or photocatalyst, customized to absorb and then destroy NDM1.
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