Background Following the ban on antimicrobial usage for growth promotion in animal husbandry in the EU, non-antimicrobial agents including heavy metal ions (e.g. zinc and copper), prebiotics or probiotics have been suggested as alternatives. Zinc has extensively been used in pig farming, particularly during weaning of piglets to improve animal health and growth rates. Recent studies, however, have suggested that high dietary zinc feeding during weaning of piglets increases the proportion of multi-drug resistant E. coli in the gut, contraindicating the appropriateness of zinc as an alternative. The underlying mechanisms of zinc effects on resistant bacteria remains unclear, but co-selection processes could be involved. In this study, we determined whether E. coli isolates from intestinal contents of piglets that had been supplemented with high concentrations of zinc acquired a higher tolerance towards zinc, and whether multi-drug resistant isolates tolerated higher zinc concentrations. In addition, we compared phenotypic zinc and copper resistance of E. coli isolates for possible correlation between phenotypic resistance/tolerance to different bivalent ionic metals.
Results We screened phenotypic zinc/copper tolerance of 210 isolates (including antimicrobial resistant, multi-drug resistant, and non-resistant E. coli) selected from two, independent zinc-feeding animal trials by determining a zinc/copper minimal inhibitory concentration (Merlin, Bornheim-Hersel, Germany). In both trials, groups of piglets were supplemented either with high dietary zinc (> 2000 ppm) or control (50–70 ppm, background) concentrations. Our observations showed that high concentration zinc exposure did not have an effect on either zinc or copper phenotypic tolerance of E. coli isolates from the animals. No significant association was found between antimicrobial resistance and phenotypic zinc/copper tolerance of the same isolates.
Conclusion Our findings argue against a co-selection mechanism of antimicrobial drug-resistance and zinc tolerance after dietary zinc supplementation in weaning piglets. An explanation for an increase in multi-drug resistant isolates from piglets with high zinc dietary feeding could be that resistant bacteria to antimicrobial agents are more persistent to stresses such as zinc or copper exposure.