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Earthworms mediate the influence of polyethylene (PE) and polylactic acid (PLA) microplastics on soil bacterial communities

Authors: Siyuan Lu, Jiahua Hao, Hao Yang, Mengya Chen, Jiapan Lian, Yalan Chen, Robert W. Brown, Davey L. Jones, Zhuoma Wan, Wei Wang, Wenjin Chang, Donghui Wu 

Abstract: There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that both biodegradable and conventional (non-degradable) microplastics (MP) are hazardous to soil health by affecting the delivery of key ecological functions such as litter decomposition, nutrient cycling and water retention. Specifically, soil fauna may be harmed by the presence of MPs while also being involved in their disintegration, degradation, migration and transfer in soil. Therefore, a comprehensive understanding of the interactions between MPs and soil fauna is essential. Here, we conducted a 120-day soil microcosm experiment applying polyethylene (PE) and polylactic acid (PLA), in the absence/presence of the earthworm Eisenia nordenskioldi to estimate the relative singular and combined impact of MPs and earthworms on the soil bacterial community. Our findings revealed contrasting effects of PE and PLA on the composition and diversity of soil bacteria. All treatments affected the community and network structure of the soil bacterial community. Compared to the control (no MPs or earthworms), PE decreased bacterial alpha diversity, while PLA increased it. Patescibacteria were found to be significantly abundant in the PE group whereas Actinobacteria and Gemmatimonadetes were more abundant in PE, and PLA and earthworms groups. The presence of earthworms appeared to mediate the impact of PE/PLA on soil bacteria, potentially through bacterial consumption or by altering soil properties (e.g., pH, aeration, C availability). Earthworm presence also appeared to promote the chemical aging of PLA. Collectively, our results provide novel insights into the soil-fauna-driven impact of degradable/nondegradable MPs exposure on the long-term environmental risks associated with soil microorganisms.

Keywords: Degradable microplastics; Earthworms; Microbiota; Ecological function; Microbial resilience;

Published in: Science of The Total Environment, Volume 905, 9 September 2023, Pages 1-13

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