Widely used benzalkonium chloride disinfectants can promote antibiotic resistance

Minjae Kim, Michael R. Weigand, Seungdae Oh, Janet K. Hatt, Raj Krishnan, Ulas Tezel, Spyros G. Pavlostathis, Konstantinos T. Konstantinidis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

149 Scopus citations


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.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere01201-18
JournalApplied and Environmental Microbiology
Issue number17
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 American Society for Microbiology.


  • Antibiotics
  • Cross-resistance
  • Disinfectants
  • Metagenomics
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Food Science
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Ecology


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