Recalcitrant polymers are widely distributed in the environment. This includes natural polymers, such as chitin, but also synthetic polymers, which are becoming increasingly abundant, and for which biodegradation is uncertain. Distribution of labour in microbial communities commonly evolves in nature, particularly for arduous processes, suggesting that a community may be better at degrading recalcitrant compounds than individual microorganisms. Previous work, carried out by us, showed that a microbial community could be selected for the efficient degradation of chitin, but if the community was left for too long then the function decayed as the active members were replaced by cheaters and grazers. Here we aimed to determine whether (i) a marine microbial community may be capable of degrading the common packaging plastic poly(ethylene terephthalate) (PET), (ii) whether we see the same pattern of community succession as we do with chitin and (iii) if this community may be better able to degrade PET than an individual organism. We incubated several different types of PET with the natural microbial community found colonising coastal marine debris, and characterised the microbial community succession across the incubation period. We show an enrichment of taxa that have previously been shown to be capable of the degradation of recalcitrant compounds, and we show that this community is capable of growing faster than an individual organism. We are currently determining the correlation between microbial community structure and the concentration of breakdown products from PET, as well as the mechanisms that are used for this degradation.

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