Fragmentation and depolymerization of microplastics in the earthworm gut: A potential for microplastic bioremediation?

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Abstract

The accumulation of microplastics poses potential risks to soil health. Here, we did a preliminary exploration on the potential of Lumbricus terrestris (Oligochaeta) to reduce low-density polyethylene (LDPE), polylactic acid (PLA), and polybutylene adipate terephthalate (PBAT) microplastic (20–648 µm) contamination in soils. The ingestion of microplastics-contaminated soil (1% of microplastics, dw/dw) in a mesocosm system and the ingestion of pure microplastics in the Petri Dish by earthworms were studied. Results show that earthworms survived in the microplastics-contaminated soil (0% mortality in 35 days) but barely when exposed solely to microplastics (30–80% mortality in 4 days). Size-dependent ingestion of microplastics was not observed. The fragmentation of LDPE microplastics in the gizzard facilitated by soil was confirmed by the significantly increased ratio of small-sized (20–113 µm) microplastics from the bulk soil to the gut (from 8.4% to 18.8%). PLA and PBAT microplastics were fragmented by gizzard without the facilitation of soil, the ratios of small-sized (20–113 µm) PLA and PBAT microplastics in the gut were 55.5% and 108.2% higher than in respective pristine distributions. Substantial depolymerization of PLA (weight-average molar mass reduced by 17.7% with shift in molecular weight distribution) and suspected depolymerization of PBAT were observed in the worm gut, while no change in the molar mass was observed for PLA and PBAT microplastics buried in the soil for 49 days. Our results suggest that ingested microplastics could undergo fragmentation and depolymerization (for certain polymers) in the earthworm gut. Further research is needed to reveal the mechanisms of polymer depolymerization in the earthworm gut and to evaluate the feasibility of microplastic bioremediation with earthworms.
Original languageEnglish
Article number130765
JournalJournal of Hazardous Materials
Volume447
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 5 Apr 2023

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