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Tracking microbial microplastic transformations in marine waters using stable isotope-informed metaproteogenomics

EMSL Project ID


Plastics have become a pervasive component of industrial and domestic products within the global economy, with an estimated 6300 million metric tons of plastic waste generated by 2015. The magnitude of plastic waste generation presents a serious threat to marine and terrestrial ecosystem health, and is a major contributing factor the current exceedance of our Planetary Boundary for anthropogenic pollution. Not only is plastic waste a serious environmental threat, it now represents a potentially important component of the global carbon cycle. It is estimated that the current annual flow of plastic carbon into the global carbon cycle is roughly 280–360 MMT, which is approximately 10% of the magnitude of carbon added via the global combustion of coal for electricity. Once in the environment, plastics tend to degrade into smaller particles, such as nano- and microplastics. While it is assumed that these plastic particles are not biologically available, the lifetime of plastic in the environment and the stability of its carbon polymers are not well-understood. The breakdown and transformation of plastic polymers by environmental microorganisms could therefore play a substantial role in global carbon cycling.

Here, we propose to utilize a suite of multi-omic approaches to expand our quantitative understanding of microplastic degradation and transformation by marine microorganisms. We will leverage our existing funded network focusing on oceanic microplastic to answer three driving questions:

1. What fraction of marine microplastic carbon ends up in microbial biomass?
2. What organisms are responsible for the breakdown or transformation of microplastic polymers?
3. What metabolic pathways or novel enzymes are associated with microplastic transformation?

We will answer these questions by leveraging our recent advances in stable isotope probing and amino acid tagging to enable quantitative measurements of carbon flux through uncharacterized microbial populations. Long-read metagenomic sequencing will be paired with amino-acid tagging based stable isotope measurements of peptides at the single-cell and community levels at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL). The capabilities requested by EMSL will expand our understanding of the role of microbial plastic transformation in marine biogeochemical cycling.

Project Details

Project type
Exploratory Research
Start Date
End Date


Principal Investigator

Ryan Ziels
University of British Columbia


Maite Maldonado
University of British Columbia

Team Members

Urs Hafeli
University of British Columbia