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Research article2020Peer reviewedOpen access

Rapid physicochemical changes in microplastic induced by biofilm formation

McGivney, Eric; Cederholm, Linnea; Barth, Andreas; Hakkarainen, Minna; Hamacher-Barth, Evelyne; Ogonowski, Martin; Gorokhova, Elena


Risk assessment of microplastic (MP) pollution requires understanding biodegradation processes and related changes in polymer properties. In the environment, there are two-way interactions between the MP properties and biofilm communities: (i) microorganisms may prefer some surfaces, and (ii) MP surface properties change during the colonization and weathering. In a 2-week experiment, we studied these interactions using three model plastic beads (polyethylene [PE], polypropylene [PP], and polystyrene [PS]) exposed to ambient bacterioplankton assemblage from the Baltic Sea; the control beads were exposed to bacteria-free water. For each polymer, the physicochemical properties (compression, crystallinity, surface chemistry, hydrophobicity, and surface topography) were compared before and after exposure under controlled laboratory conditions. Furthermore, we characterized the bacterial communities on the MP surfaces using 16S rRNA gene sequencing and correlated community diversity to the physicochemical properties of the MP. Significant changes in PE crystallinity, PP stiffness, and PS maximum compression were observed as a result of exposure to bacteria. Moreover, there were significant correlations between bacterial diversity and some physicochemical characteristics (crystallinity, stiffness, and surface roughness). These changes coincided with variation in the relative abundance of unique OTUs, mostly related to the PE samples having significantly higher contribution of Sphingobium, Novosphingobium, and uncultured Planctomycetaceae compared to the other test materials, whereas PP and PS samples had significantly higher abundance of Sphingobacteriales and Alphaproteobacteria, indicating possible involvement of these taxa in the initial biodegradation steps. Our findings demonstrate measurable signs of MP weathering under short-term exposure to environmentally relevant microbial communities at conditions resembling those in the water column. A systematic approach for the characterization of the biodegrading capacity in different systems will improve the risk assessment of plastic litter in aquatic environments.


microplastic; biofilm; biodegradation; microbiome composition; physicochemical characterization; polyethylene; polypropylene; polystyrene

Published in

Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology
2020, Volume: 8, article number: 205

    Sustainable Development Goals

    SDG14 Life below water

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Materials Chemistry

    Publication identifier


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