Microbial Consortiums of Putative Degraders of Low-Density Polyethylene-Associated Compounds in the Ocean

Maria Gomes Ribeiro Teixeira Pinto, Zihao Zhao, Katja Klun, Eugen Libowitzky, Gerhard Herndl

Polyethylene (PE) is one of the most abundant plastics in the ocean. The development of a biofilm on PE in the ocean has been reported, yet whether some of the biofilm-forming organisms can biodegrade this plastic in the environment remains unknown. Via metagenomics analysis, we taxonomically and functionally analyzed three biofilm communities using low-density polyethylene (LDPE) as their sole carbon source for 2 years. Several of the taxa that increased in relative abundance over time were closely related to known degraders of alkane and other hydrocarbons. Alkane degradation has been proposed to be involved in PE degradation, and most of the organisms increasing in relative abundance over time harbored genes encoding proteins essential in alkane degradation, such as the genes alkB and CYP153, encoding an alkane monooxygenase and a cytochrome P450 alkane hydroxylase, respectively. Weight loss of PE sheets when incubated with these communities and chemical and electron microscopic analyses provided evidence for alteration of the PE surface over time. Taken together, these results provide evidence for the utilization of LDPE-associated compounds by the prokaryotic communities. This report identifies a group of genes potentially involved in the degradation of the LDPE polymeric structure and/or associated plastic additives in the ocean and describes a phylogenetically diverse community of plastic biofilm-dwelling microbes with the potential for utilizing LDPE-associated compounds as carbon and energy source.

IMPORTANCE Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is one of the most used plastics worldwide, and a large portion of it ends up in the ocean. Very little is known about its fate in the ocean and whether it can be biodegraded by microorganisms. By combining 2-year incubations with metagenomics, respiration measurements, and LDPE surface analysis, we identified bacteria and associated genes and metabolic pathways potentially involved in LDPE biodegradation. After 2 years of incubation, two of the microbial communities exhibited very similar taxonomic compositions mediating changes to the LDPE pieces they were incubated with. We provide evidence that there are plastic-biofilm dwelling bacteria in the ocean that might have the potential to degrade LDPE-associated compounds and that alkane degradation pathways might be involved. \

Research Platform Plastics in the Environment and Society, Functional and Evolutionary Ecology, Department of Mineralogy and Crystallography
External organisation(s)
National Institute of Biology
Environmental Microbiology
No. of pages
Publication date
Peer reviewed
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
104026 Spectroscopy, 106026 Ecosystem research, 105906 Environmental geosciences, 106021 Marine biology
ASJC Scopus subject areas
Genetics, Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics, Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Physiology, Computer Science Applications, Microbiology, Modelling and Simulation
Sustainable Development Goals
SDG 14 - Life Below Water
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