Early Colonization of Weathered Polyethylene by Distinct Bacteria in Marine Coastal Seawater

Microb Ecol. 2020 Apr;79(3):517-526. doi: 10.1007/s00248-019-01424-5. Epub 2019 Aug 29.


Plastic debris in aquatic environments is rapidly colonized by a diverse community of microorganisms, often referred to as the "Plastisphere." Given that common plastics are derived from fossil fuels, one would expect that Plastispheres should be enriched with obligate hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria (OHCB). So far, though, different polymer types do not seem to exert a strong effect on determining the composition of the Plastisphere, and putative biodegrading bacteria are only found as rare taxa within these biofilms. Here, we show through 16S rRNA gene sequencing that the enrichment of a prominent OHCB member on weathered and non-weathered polyethylene only occurred at early stages of colonization (i.e., after 2 days of incubation in coastal marine water; 5.8% and 3.7% of relative abundance, respectively, vs. 0.6% on glass controls). As biofilms matured, these bacteria decreased in relative abundance on all materials (< 0.3% after 9 days). Apart from OHCB, weathered polyethylene strongly enriched for other distinct organisms during early stages of colonization, such as a specific member of the Roseobacter group and a member of the genus Aestuariibacter (median 26.9% and 1.8% of the community, respectively), possibly as a consequence of the availability of short-oxidized chains generated from weathering. Our results demonstrate that Plastispheres can vary in accordance with the weathering state of the material and that very early colonizing communities are enriched with taxa that can potentially degrade hydrocarbons. Given the lack of persistent enrichment and overall community convergence between materials over time, common non-hydrolysable polymers might not serve as an important source of carbon for mature Plastispheres once the labile substrates generated from weathering have been depleted.

Keywords: Early biofilm; Marine plastic pollution; Microbial colonization; Plastisphere; Weathered polyethylene.

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / classification
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Biodegradation, Environmental
  • Polyethylene / metabolism*
  • RNA, Bacterial / analysis
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / analysis
  • Seawater / microbiology*
  • Waste Products*


  • RNA, Bacterial
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • Waste Products
  • Polyethylene