Plastic-Degrading Potential across the Global Microbiome Correlates with Recent Pollution Trends
Journal article, 2021
Biodegradation is a plausible route toward sustainable management of the millions of tons of plastic waste that have accumulated in terrestrial and marine environments. However, the global diversity of plastic-degrading enzymes remains poorly understood. Taking advantage of global environmental DNA sampling projects, here we constructed hidden Markov models from experimentally verified enzymes and mined ocean and soil metagenomes to assess the global potential of microorganisms to degrade plastics. By controlling for false positives using gut microbiome data, we compiled a catalogue of over 30,000 nonredundant enzyme homologues with the potential to degrade 10 different plastic types. While differences between the ocean and soil microbiomes likely reflect the base compositions of these environments, we find that ocean enzyme abundance increases with depth as a response to plastic pollution and not merely taxonomic composition. By obtaining further pollution measurements, we observed that the abundance of the uncovered enzymes in both ocean and soil habitats significantly correlates with marine and country-specific plastic pollution trends. Our study thus uncovers the earth microbiome's potential to degrade plastics, providing evidence of a measurable effect of plastic pollution on the global microbial ecology as well as a useful resource for further applied research. IMPORTANCE Utilization of synthetic biology approaches to enhance current plastic degradation processes is of crucial importance, as natural plastic degradation processes are very slow. For instance, the predicted lifetime of a polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle under ambient conditions ranges from 16 to 48 years. Moreover, although there is still unexplored diversity in microbial communities, synergistic degradation of plastics by microorganisms holds great potential to revolutionize the management of global plastic waste. To this end, the methods and data on novel plastic-degrading enzymes presented here can help researchers by (i) providing further information about the taxonomic diversity of such enzymes as well as understanding of the mechanisms and steps involved in the biological breakdown of plastics, (ii) pointing toward the areas with increased availability of novel enzymes, and (iii) giving a basis for further application in industrial plastic waste biodegradation. Importantly, our findings provide evidence of a measurable effect of plastic pollution on the global microbial ecology.