Antibiotic resistance is a global health challenge, involving the transfer of bacteria and genes between humans, animals and the environment. Although multiple barriers restrict the flow of both bacteria and genes, pathogens recurrently acquire new resistance factors from other species, thereby reducing our ability to prevent and treat bacterial infections. Evolutionary events that lead to the emergence of new resistance factors in pathogens are rare and challenging to predict, but may be associated with vast ramifications. Transmission events of already widespread resistant strains are, on the other hand, common, quantifiable and more predictable, but the consequences of each event are limited. Quantifying the pathways and identifying the drivers of and bottlenecks for environmental evolution and transmission of antibiotic resistance are key components to understand and manage the resistance crisis as a whole. In this Review, we present our current understanding of the roles of the environment, including antibiotic pollution, in resistance evolution, in transmission and as a mere reflection of the regional antibiotic resistance situation in the clinic. We provide a perspective on current evidence, describe risk scenarios, discuss methods for surveillance and the assessment of potential drivers, and finally identify some actions to mitigate risks.
In this Review, Larsson and Flach discuss the drivers of and bottlenecks for environmental evolution and transmission of antibiotic resistance, and they explore environmental surveillance strategies that could complement clinical surveillance systems.