Microplastics provide new microbial niches in aquatic environments

Yuyi Yang, Wenzhi Liu, Zulin Zhang, Hans-Peter Grossart (Lead / Corresponding author), Geoffrey Gadd (Lead / Corresponding author)

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

230 Citations (Scopus)
178 Downloads (Pure)


Microplastics in the biosphere are currently of great environmental concern because of their potential toxicity for aquatic biota and human health and association with pathogenic microbiota. Microplastics can occur in high abundance in all aquatic environments, including oceans, rivers and lakes. Recent findings have highlighted the role of microplastics as important vectors for microorganisms, which can form fully developed biofilms on this artificial substrate. Microplastics therefore provide new microbial niches in the aquatic environment, and the developing biofilms may significantly differ in microbial composition compared to natural free-living or particle-associated microbial populations in the surrounding water. In this article, we discuss the composition and ecological function of the microbial communities found in microplastic biofilms. The potential factors that influence the richness and diversity of such microbial microplastic communities are also evaluated. Microbe-microbe and microbe-substrate interactions in microplastic biofilms have been little studied and are not well understood. Multiomics tools together with morphological, physiological and biochemical analyses should be combined to provide a more comprehensive overview on the ecological role of microplastic biofilms. These new microbial niches have so far unknown consequences for microbial ecology and environmental processes in aquatic ecosystems. More knowledge is required on the microbial community composition of microplastic biofilms and their ecological functions in order to better evaluate consequences for the environment and animal health, including humans, especially since the worldwide abundance of microplastics is predicted to dramatically increase.Key Points• Bacteria are mainly studied in community analyses: fungi are neglected.• Microbial colonization of microplastics depends on substrate, location and time.• Community ecology is a promising approach to investigate microbial colonization.• Biodegradable plastics, and ecological roles of microplastic biofilms, need analysis.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6501-6511
Number of pages11
JournalApplied Microbiology and Biotechnology
Issue number15
Early online date4 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2020


  • Biofilms
  • Ecological niche
  • Microbial communities
  • Microbial diversity and function
  • Microplastics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology


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