Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Discovering Common Microbes that Degrade Polymer Composites

February 08 (2021

Polymer composites are durable, lightweight replacements for wood, metal or other materials and are used widely in everything from pipelines and utility poles to airplanes and cars. Research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is shedding new light on how common bacteria can degrade these materials.

“A lot of studies have focused on how these polymer materials would respond to environmental conditions like temperature, moisture or ultraviolet light,” says Pavana Prabhakar, a UW–Madison professor of civil and environmental engineering. “They’ve rarely been studied in the context of microbial interactions.”

Prabhakar and her collaborators identified four bacterial groups that have detrimental interactions with the acrylate, esters and bisphenol commonly found in polymer composites. The group — including UW–Madison bacteriology professor Karthik Anantharaman and Adam Breister and Muhammad Imam, a research technician and a post-doctoral researcher in the Anantharaman and Prabhakar labs, respectively — published their findings recently in the journal Communications Materials.

Research on microorganisms interacting with polymer composites has focused on individual types of cultivated microbes that aren’t necessarily common in natural environments, according to Prabhakar. Instead, she and Anantharaman studied microbes found more frequently in nature.

As a result, the research lays the groundwork for future studies. For example, if researchers want to study the microbiome’s impact on polymer composites underwater or in drainage pipes, they can use the duo’s platform and methods to better understand interactions in those contexts.

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