Antibiotics are a contaminant class of worldwide concern as they are frequently detected in aquatic ecosystems. To better understand the impacts of antibiotics on aquatic ecosystems, we conducted an outdoor mesocosm experiment in which aquatic communities were exposed to different concentrations of the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole (0, 0.15, 1.5, 15 and 150 μg/L). These concentrations include mean (0.15 μg/L) and maximum detected concentrations (15 and 150 μg/L) in aquatic ecosystems worldwide. Sulfamethoxazole was applied once a week for eight consecutive weeks to 1530 L outdoor mesocosms in the Netherlands, followed by an eight-week recovery period. We evaluated phytoplankton-, bacterial- and invertebrate responses during and after sulfamethoxazole exposure and assessed impacts on organic matter decomposition. Contrary to our expectations, consistent treatment-related effects on algal and bacterial communities could not be demonstrated. In addition, sulfamethoxazole did not significantly affect zooplankton and macroinvertebrate communities. However, some effects on specific taxa were observed, with an increase in Mesostoma flatworm abundance (NOEC of <0.15 μg/ L). In addition, eDNA analyses indicated negative impacts on the insects Odonata at a sulfamethoxazole concentration of 15 μg/L. Overall, environmentally relevant sulfamethoxazole concentration did not result in direct or indirect impairment of entire aquatic communities and ecological processes in our mesocosms. However, several specific macroinvertebrate taxa demonstrated significant (in)direct effects from sulfamethoxazole. Comparison of the results with the literature showed inconsistent results between studies using comparable, environmentally relevant, concentrations. Therefore, our study highlights the importance of testing the ecological impacts of pharmaceuticals (such as sulfamethoxazole) across multiple trophic levels spanning multiple aquatic communities, to fully understand its potential ecological threats.

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Environmental Pollution

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Staff publications

Schuijt, Lara M., van Drimmelen, Chantal K.E., Buijse, Laura L., van Smeden, Jasper, Wu, Dailing, Boerwinkel, Marie-Claire, … Van den Brink, Paul J. (2024). Assessing ecological responses to exposure to the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole in freshwater mesocosms. Environmental Pollution, 343(123199). doi:10.1016/j.envpol.2023.123199