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Microbial biomass yield and turnover in soil biodegradation tests: carbon substrate effects

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-07, 19:58 authored by Emo Chiellini, Andrea Corti, Salvatore D'Antone,, Norman C Billingham
Most of the standardized biodegradation tests used to assess the ultimate biodegradation of environmentally degradable polymers are based solely on the determination of net evolved carbon dioxide. However, under aerobic conditions, it has to be considered that heterotrophic microbial consortia metabolize carbon substrates both to carbon dioxide and in the production of new cell biomass. It is generally accepted that in the relatively short term, 50% of the carbon content of most organic substrates is converted to CO2, with the remaining carbon being assimilated as biomass or incorporated into humus. The latter is particularly important when the metabolism of the organic matter occurs in a soil environment. A straightforward relationship between the free-energy content of a carbon substrate (expressed as the standard free-energy of combustion) and its propensity for conversion to new microbial biomass rather than mineralization to CO2 has been established. This can potentially lead to underestimation of biodegradation levels of test compounds, especially when they consist of carbon in a fairly low formal oxidation state and relatively high free-energy content. In the present work, the metabolism of different kind of carbon substrates, especially in soil, is reviewed and compared with our own experimental results from respirometric tests. The results show that conversion of highly oxidized materials, such as the commonly used reference materials, cellulose or starch, to CO2 may be significantly overestimated. The addition of glucosidic material to soil leads to greatly increased respiration and is accompanied by a very low conversion to biomass or humic substances. In contrast, relatively less oxidized substrates metabolize more slowly to give both CO2 and biomass to an extent which may be significantly underestimated if glucosidic materials are used as the reference. The need for an overall carbon balance taking into account both the carbon immobilized as biomass and that volatized as CO2 must be considered in standard respirometric procedures for assessing the biodegradability of slowly degrading macromolecules.


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  • Published


Journal of Polymers and the Environment





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