Quantification and fate of plasmid-specific bacteriophages in wastewater: Beyond the F-coliphages

Zhiming He, Boris Parra, Joseph Nesme, Barth F. Smets, Arnaud Dechesne*

*Corresponding author for this work

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Plasmid-specific bacteriophages specifically infect bacteria carrying conjugal plasmids. While wastewater has been used as isolation source for such phages, to date, only the distribution and ecology of RNA phages specific to the F plasmid have been described, because they serve as a water quality indicator. Yet, several other plasmid classes have higher clinical and ecological relevance, and the distribution, fate, and ecology of the phages that target them remain uncharacterized. We aimed to (i) provide an experimental platform to quantify the abundance of plasmid-specific phages applicable to several different conjugal plasmid classes, (ii) describe the distribution of such phages in wastewater systems, and (iii) relate their abundance to plasmid abundance and to municipal wastewater treatment processes. We introduced four model conjugal plasmids, belonging to incompatibility groups IncP-1, IncN, IncHI1, or IncF into an avirulent Salmonella enterica strain, for which somatic phages are at low abundance in wastewater. These strains were used in double layer agar assays with water from contrasting sources. Plasmid-specific phages were common in wastewater but rare in river water. Hospital wastewater contained significantly more IncP-1-, but fewer IncF- and IncN- specific phages than domestic wastewater. This pattern did not match that of plasmid abundance estimated by high-throughput quantitative PCR. The comparison between influent and effluent of wastewater treatment plants revealed a reduction in phage concentration by ca. 2 log, without significant contribution of primary settling. Overall, the ubiquity of these phages hints at their importance for plasmid ecology, and can provide opportunities in water quality monitoring and in ecological management of mobile resistance genes.
Original languageEnglish
Article number119320
JournalWater Research
Number of pages8
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Virus
  • Conjugation
  • F-specific bacteriophages
  • Antimicrobial resistance
  • Water treatment


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