Many commercial plasticizers are toxic endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are added to plastics during manufacturing and may leach out once they reach the environment. Traditional phthalic acid ester plasticizers (PAEs), such as dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and bis(2-ethyl hexyl) phthalate (DEHP), are now increasingly being replaced with more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as acetyl tributyl citrate (ATBC). While the metabolic pathways for PAE degradation have been established in the terrestrial environment, to our knowledge, the mechanisms for ATBC biodegradation have not been identified previously and plasticizer degradation in the marine environment remains underexplored.
From marine plastic debris, we enriched and isolated microbes able to grow using a range of plasticizers and, for the first time, identified the pathways used by two phylogenetically distinct bacteria to degrade three different plasticizers (i.e., DBP, DEHP, and ATBC) via a comprehensive proteogenomic and metabolomic approach. This integrated multi-OMIC study also revealed the different mechanisms used for ester side-chain removal from the different plasticizers (esterases and enzymes involved in the β-oxidation pathway) as well as the molecular response to deal with toxic intermediates, that is, phthalate, and the lower biodegrading potential detected for ATBC than for PAE plasticizers.
This study highlights the metabolic potential that exists in the biofilms that colonize plastics-the Plastisphere-to effectively biodegrade plastic additives and flags the inherent importance of microbes in reducing plastic toxicity in the environment.