Wastewater treatment alters microbial colonization of microplastics

John J. Kelly, Maxwell G. London, Amanda R. McCormick, Miguel Rojas, John W. Scott, Timothy J. Hoellein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Microplastics are ubiquitous contaminants in aquatic habitats globally, and wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) are point sources of microplastics. Within aquatic habitats microplastics are colonized by microbial biofilms, which can include pathogenic taxa and taxa associated with plastic breakdown. Microplastics enter WWTPs in sewage and exit in sludge or effluent, but the role that WWTPs play in establishing or modifying microplastic bacterial assemblages is unknown. We analyzed microplastics and associated biofilms in raw sewage, effluent water, and sludge from two WWTPs. Both plants retained >99% of influent microplastics in sludge, and sludge microplastics showed higher bacterial species richness and higher abundance of taxa associated with bioflocculation (e.g. Xanthomonas) than influent microplastics, suggesting that colonization of microplastics within the WWTP may play a role in retention. Microplastics in WWTP effluent included significantly lower abundances of some potentially pathogenic bacterial taxa (e.g. Campylobacteraceae) compared to influent microplastics; however, other potentially pathogenic taxa (e.g. Acinetobacter) remained abundant on effluent microplastics, and several taxa linked to plastic breakdown (e.g. Klebsiella, Pseudomonas, and Sphingomonas) were significantly more abundant on effluent compared to influent microplastics. These results indicate that diverse bacterial assemblages colonize microplastics within sewage and that WWTPs can play a significant role in modifying the microplastic-associated assemblages, which may affect the fate of microplastics within the WWTPs and the environment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e0244443
JournalPloS one
Issue number1 January
StatePublished - Jan 2021


  • ISTC

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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