Research ArticleENVIRONMENTAL STUDIES

Biodegradation of synthetic polymers in soils: Tracking carbon into CO2 and microbial biomass

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Science Advances  25 Jul 2018:
Vol. 4, no. 7, eaas9024
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aas9024

Abstract

Plastic materials are widely used in agricultural applications to achieve food security for the growing world population. The use of biodegradable instead of nonbiodegradable polymers in single-use agricultural applications, including plastic mulching, promises to reduce plastic accumulation in the environment. We present a novel approach that allows tracking of carbon from biodegradable polymers into CO2 and microbial biomass. The approach is based on 13C-labeled polymers and on isotope-specific analytical methods, including nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry (NanoSIMS). Our results unequivocally demonstrate the biodegradability of poly(butylene adipate-co-terephthalate) (PBAT), an important polyester used in agriculture, in soil. Carbon from each monomer unit of PBAT was used by soil microorganisms, including filamentous fungi, to gain energy and to form biomass. This work advances both our conceptual understanding of polymer biodegradation and the methodological capabilities to assess this process in natural and engineered environments.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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