Background: Broilers are among the most common and dense poultry production systems, where antimicrobials have been used extensively to promote animal health and performance. The continuous usage of antimicrobials has contributed to the appearance of resistant bacteria, such as extended-spectrum β-lactamase-producing Escherichia coli (ESBL-Ec). Here, we studied the ESBL-Ec prevalence and successional dynamics of the caecal microbiota of developing broilers in a commercial flock during their production life cycle (0–35 days). Broilers were categorised as ESBL-Ec colonised (ESBL-Ec+) or ESBL-Ec non-colonised (ESBL-Ec−) by selective culturing. Using 16S rRNA gene sequencing, we i. compared the richness, evenness and composition of the caecal microbiota of both broilers’ groups and ii. assessed the combined role of age and ESBL-Ec status on the broilers’ caecal microbiota.
Results: From day two, we observed an increasing linear trend in the proportions of ESBL-Ec throughout the broilers' production life cycle, X2 (1, N = 12) = 28.4, p < 0.001. Over time, the caecal microbiota richness was consistently higher in ESBL-Ec− broilers, but significant differences between both broilers’ groups were found exclusively on day three (Wilcoxon rank-sum test, p = 0.016). Bray–Curtis distance-based RDA (BC-dbRDA) showed no explanatory power of ESBL-Ec status, while age explained 14% of the compositional variation of the caecal microbiota, F (2, 66) = 6.47, p = 0.001.
Conclusions: This study assessed the role of ESBL-Ec in the successional dynamics of the caecal microbiota in developing broilers and showed that the presence of ESBL-Ec is associated with mild but consistent reductions in alpha diversity and with transient bacterial compositional differences. We also reported the clonal spread of ESBL-Ec and pointed to the farm environment as a likely source for ESBLs.