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Department of Biological Sciences; Department of Chemical Engineering


BACKGROUND Plastic-degrading microbial isolates offer great potential to degrade, transform, and upcycle plastic waste. Tandem chemical and biological processing of plastic wastes has been shown to substantially increase the rates of plastic degradation however, the focus of this work has been almost entirely on microbial isolates (either bioengineered or naturally occurring). We propose that a microbial community has even greater potential for plastic upcycling. A microbial community has greater metabolic diversity to process mixed plastic waste streams and has built-in functional redundancy for optimal resilience. RESULTS Here, we used two plastic-derivative degrading communities as a model system to investigate the roles of specialist and generalist species within the microbial communities. These communities were grown on five plastic-derived substrates pyrolysis treated high-density polyethylene, chemically deconstructed polyethylene terephthalate, disodium terephthalate, terephthalamide, and ethylene glycol. Short-read metagenomic and metatranscriptomic sequencing were performed to evaluate activity of microorganisms in each treatment. Long-read metagenomic sequencing was performed to obtain high-quality metagenome assembled genomes and evaluate division of labor. CONCLUSIONS Data presented here show that the communities are primarily dominated by Rhodococcus generalists and lower abundance specialists for each of the plastic-derived substrates investigated here, supporting previous research that generalist species dominate batch culture. Additionally, division of labor may be present between Hydrogenophaga terephthalate degrading specialists and lower abundance protocatechuate degrading specialists. Video Abstract.

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