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Department of Biological Sciences; Department of Chemical Engineering


Over half of the world's plastic waste is landfilled, where it is estimated to take hundreds of years to degrade. Given the continued use and disposal of plastic products, it is vital that we develop fast and effective ways to utilize plastic waste. Here, we explore the potential of tandem chemical and biological processing to process various plastics quickly and effectively. Four samples of compost or sediment were used to set up enrichment cultures grown on mixtures of compounds, including disodium terephthalate and terephthalic acid (monomers of polyethylene terephthalate), compounds derived from the chemical deconstruction of polycarbonate, and pyrolysis oil derived from high-density polyethylene plastics. Established enrichment communities were also grown on individual substrates to investigate the substrate preferences of different taxa. Biomass harvested from the cultures was characterized using 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing and shotgun metagenomic sequencing. These data reveal low-diversity microbial communities structured by differences in culture inoculum, culture substrate source plastic type, and time. Microbial populations from the classes , , , and were significantly enriched when grown on substrates derived from high-density polyethylene and polycarbonate. The metagenomic data contain abundant aromatic and aliphatic hydrocarbon degradation genes relevant to the biodegradation of deconstructed plastic substrates used here. We show that microbial populations from diverse environments are capable of growth on substrates derived from the chemical deconstruction or pyrolysis of multiple plastic types and that paired chemical and biological processing of plastics should be further developed for industrial applications to manage plastic waste. The durability and impermeable nature of plastics have made them a popular material for numerous applications, but these same qualities make plastics difficult to dispose of, resulting in massive amounts of accumulated plastic waste in landfills and the natural environment. Since plastic use and disposal are projected to increase in the future, novel methods to effectively break down and dispose of current and future plastic waste are desperately needed. We show that the products of chemical deconstruction or pyrolysis of plastic can successfully sustain the growth of low-diversity microbial communities. These communities were enriched from multiple environmental sources and are capable of degrading complex xenobiotic carbon compounds. This study demonstrates that tandem chemical and biological processing can be used to degrade multiple types of plastics over a relatively short period of time and may be a future avenue for the mitigation of rapidly accumulating plastic waste.

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© 2023 Putman et al. Publisher’s version of record:

Publication Title

Microbiology spectrum

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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