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Microorganisms that produce enzymes active on biodegradable polyesters are ubiquitous

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Biodegradability standards measure ultimate biodegradation of polymers by exposing the material under test to a natural microbial inoculum. Available tests developed by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) use inoculums sampled from different environments e.g. soil, marine sediments, seawater. Understanding whether each inoculum is to be considered as microbially unique or not can be relevant for the interpretation of tests results. In this review, we address this question by consideration of the following: (i) the chemical nature of biodegradable plastics (virtually all biodegradable plastics are polyesters) (ii) the diffusion of ester bonds in nature both in simple molecules and in polymers (ubiquitous); (iii) the diffusion of decomposers capable of producing enzymes, called esterases, which accelerate the hydrolysis of esters, including polyesters (ubiquitous); (iv) the evidence showing that synthetic polyesters can be depolymerized by esterases (large and growing); (v) the evidence showing that these esterases are ubiquitous (growing and confirmed by bioinformatics studies). By combining the relevant available facts it can be concluded that if a certain polyester shows ultimate biodegradation when exposed to a natural inoculum, it can be considered biodegradable and need not be retested using other inoculums. Obviously, if the polymer does not show ultimate biodegradation it must be considered recalcitrant, until proven otherwise.

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Many thanks to Prof. Lucia Gardossi for useful discussions and advice.


No funding was received for conducting this study.

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Authors and Affiliations



FDI: conceptualization, investigation, writing—original draft preparation, writing—review & editing); T.B.: writing—review & editing; S.C.: investigation, writing—original draft preparation, writing—review & editing; E.E.: Writing—review & editing; M.P.: supervision, writing—review & editing; A.Pe.: investigation, writing—original draft preparation; A.Pi.: investigation, conceptualization, visualization, writing—original draft preparation, writing—review & editing; M.T.: Writing—review & editing.

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Correspondence to Francesco Degli-Innocenti.

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The authors declare that they work for a company that produces biodegradable plastics.

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Degli-Innocenti, F., Breton, T., Chinaglia, S. et al. Microorganisms that produce enzymes active on biodegradable polyesters are ubiquitous. Biodegradation 34, 489–518 (2023).

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