Effect of surface modifications on biodegradation of nanocellulose and microbial response

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Virginia Tech

History teaches us that novel materials, such as chlorofluorocarbon and asbestos, can have dire unintended consequences to human and environmental health. The exponential growth of the field of nanotechnology and the products developed along the way provide the opportunity for a new paradigm of design thinking, in which human and environmental impacts are considered early on in product development. In particular, nanocellulose is touted as a promising green nanomaterial, as it is sourced from an effectively inexhaustible feedstock of wood-based cellulose and is assumed to be harmless to the environment since it is derived from a natural material and assumed to be biodegradable. The various forms of nanocellulose possess an impressive diversity of properties, making it suitable for a wide variety of applications such as drug delivery, reinforcement, food additives, and iridescent make-up. However, as nanomaterials can have different properties relative to their bulk form, it is questionable whether they are truly environmentally friendly, particularly in terms of their biodegradability and potential impacts to receiving environments.

Given the projected mass-scale application of nanocellulose and the inevitability of its subsequent release into environment, the purpose of this study was to determine the biodegradability of nanocellulose and the response of environmentally-relevant microbial communities. Specifically, it was hypothesized that cellulose in the nano size range would display distinct biodegradation patterns and rates, relative to larger forms of cellulose. Further, it was hypothesized that modification of nanocellulose, in terms of morphology and surface properties (e.g., charge), would further influence its biodegradability. Wetlands and anaerobic digesters were selected as two environmentally-relevant receiving environments that also play critical roles in global carbon turnover.

To examine the biodegradability of nanocellulose, two distinct microbial consortia were enriched from wetland (W) and anaerobic digester (AD) inocula and applied in parallel experiments. The consortia were grown under anaerobic conditions with microcrystalline cellulose as the sole carbon substrate over a period of 246 days before being aliquoted to microcosms for subsequent biodegradation assays. Various forms of nanocellulose were spiked into the microcosms and compared with microcrystalline cellulose as a non nano reference. Microcosms were sacrificed in triplicate with time to monitor cellulose degradation as well as various measures of microbial community response. Microbial communities were characterized in terms of gene markers for total bacteria (16S rRNA genes) and anaerobic cellulose degraders (glycoside hydrolase family 48 genes, i.e., cel48) as well as high throughput amplicon sequencing of 16S rRNA genes (V4 region). A series of three studies examined: 1) the effect of nanocrystalline versus microcrystalline cellulose; 2) the effects of nanocellulose morphology (crystalline rod versus filament) and surface functionalization (cationic and anionic); and 3) metagenomic characterization of cellulose degrading communities using next-generation DNA sequencing.

It was found that the nano- size range did not hinder cellulose degradation, in fact, nanocrystalline cellulose degraded slightly faster than microcrystalline cellulose according to 1st order kinetics (1st order decay constants: 0.62±0.08 wk-1 for anionic nanocrystalline cellulose versus 0.39±0.05 wk-1 for microcrystalline cellulose exposed to AD culture; 0.69±0.04 wk-1 for anionic nanocrystalline cellulose versus 0.58±0.05 wk-1 for microcrystalline cellulose exposed to W). Experiments comparing the effects of surface functionalization indicated that anionic nanocellulose degraded faster than cationic cellulose (1st order decay constants for cationic nanocrystalline cellulose: 0.48±0.06 wk-1 and 0.58±0.07 wk-1 on exposure to AD and W cultures respectively). Measurements of 16S rRNA and cel48 genes were consistent with this trend of greater biological growth and cellulose-degrading potential in the anionic nanocellulose condition, suggesting that surface properties can influence biodegradation patterns. Taxonomic characterization of 16S rRNA gene amplicons suggested that taxa known to contain anaerobic cellulose degraders were enriched in both W and AD consortia, which shifted in a distinct manner in response to exposure to the different cellulosic materials. This suggests that distinct groups of microbes may drive the biodegradation of different forms of cellulose. Further, metagenomic investigation provided new insight into taxonomic and functional aspects of anaerobic cellulose degradation, including identification of enzymatic families associated with degradation of the various forms of cellulose. Overall, the findings of this study advance understanding of anaerobic cellulose degradation and indicate that nanocellulose is likely to readily degrade in receiving environments and not pose an environmental concern.

nanocellulose, cellulose nanowhiskers, cellulose nanofibrills, surface modification, biodegradation, cellulose degradation, glycoside hydrolase, auxiliary activities, metagenomics, qPCR