While the misuse of antibiotics has clearly contributed to the emergence and proliferation of resistant bacterial pathogens, with major health consequences, it remains less clear if the widespread use of disinfectants, such as benzalkonium chlorides (BAC), a different class of biocides than antibiotics, has contributed to this problem. Here, we provide evidence that exposure to BAC coselects for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and describe the underlying genetic mechanisms. After inoculation with river sediment, BAC-fed bioreactors selected for several bacterial taxa, including the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, that were more resistant to several antibiotics than their counterparts in a control (no BAC) bioreactor. A metagenomic analysis of the bioreactor microbial communities, confirmed by gene cloning experiments with the derived isolates, suggested that integrative and conjugative elements encoding a BAC efflux pump together with antibiotic resistance genes were responsible for these results. Furthermore, the exposure of the P. aeruginosa isolates to increasing concentrations of BAC selected for mutations in pmrB (polymyxin resistance) and physiological adaptations that contributed to a higher tolerance to polymyxin B and other antibiotics. The physiological adaptations included the overexpression of mexCD-oprJ multidrug efflux pump genes when BAC was added in the growth medium at subinhibitory concentrations. Collectively, our results demonstrated that disinfectants promote antibiotic resistance via several mechanisms and highlight the need to remediate (degrade) disinfectants in nontarget environments to further restrain the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
IMPORTANCE Benzalkonium chlorides (BAC) are biocides broadly used in disinfectant solutions. Disinfectants are widely used in food processing lines, domestic households, and pharmaceutical products and are typically designed to have a different mode of action than antibiotics to avoid interfering with the use of the latter. Whether exposure to BAC makes bacteria more resistant to antibiotics remains an unresolved issue of obvious practical consequences for public health. Using an integrated approach that combines metagenomics of natural microbial communities with gene cloning experiments with isolates and experimental evolution assays, we show that the widely used benzalkonium chloride disinfectants promote clinically relevant antibiotic resistance. Therefore, more attention should be given to the usage of these disinfectants, and their fate in nontarget environments should be monitored more tightly.