Effective uptake of submicrometre plastics by crop plants via a crack-entry mode


Most microplastics are emitted, either directly or via the degradation of plastics, to the terrestrial environment and accumulate in large amounts in soils, representing a potential threat to terrestrial ecosystems. It is very important to evaluate the uptake of microplastics by crop plants because of the ubiquity of microplastics in wastewaters often used for agricultural irrigation worldwide. Here, we analyse the uptake of different microplastics by crop plants (wheat (Triticum aestivum) and lettuce (Lactuca sativa)) from treated wastewater in hydroponic cultures and in sand matrices or a sandy soil. Our results provide evidence in support of submicrometre- and micrometre-sized polystyrene and polymethylmethacrylate particles penetrating the stele of both species using the crack-entry mode at sites of lateral root emergence. This crack-entry pathway and features of the polymeric particles lead to the efficient uptake of submicrometre plastic. The plastic particles were subsequently transported from the roots to the shoots. Higher transpiration rates enhanced the uptake of plastic particles, showing that the transpirational pull was the main driving force of their movement. Our findings shed light on the modes of plastic particle interaction with plants and have implications for crops grown in fields contaminated with wastewater treatment discharges or sewage sludges.

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Fig. 1: Accumulation of 0.2 μm fluorescently labelled PS beads by wheat plants.
Fig. 2: Accumulation of 0.2 μm fluorescently labelled PS beads by lettuce.
Fig. 3: SEM images of 0.2 μm PS bead localization in the root, stem and leaf of a wheat plant.
Fig. 4: SEM images of 0.2 μm PS bead localization in the root and leaf of a lettuce plant.
Fig. 5: SEM images of 2.0 μm PS microbead localization in the root, stem and leaf of a wheat plant.
Fig. 6: SEM images of 2.0 μm PS bead localization in the root and leaf of a lettuce plant.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available in the paper and its Supplementary Information or from the corresponding author upon request.


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We acknowledge the financial support by the National Nature Science Foundation of China (grant nos 41877142 and 41991330), the Key Research Program of Frontier Sciences, CAS (grant no. QYZDJ-SSW-DQC015) and the External Cooperation Program of BIC, Chinese Academy of Sciences (grant no. 133337KYSB20160003). We thank P. Christie from the Institute of Soil Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China, for contributing to language polishing.

Author information




Y.L. managed the whole project, designed all the experiments and jointly wrote the manuscript. L.L. conducted the uptake experiments and wrote the manuscript. R.L. inspected the plant tissue using a confocal laser scanning microscope and collected the images. N.Y. and J.Y. examined the samples with a scanning electron microscope and collected the images. R.L. and Y.Z. conducted the X-ray computed microtomography using a high-resolution X-ray computed microtomography system. Q.Z. and N.Y. analysed the mechanical properties of the PS beads using a Dimension Icon atomic force microscope system and collected the images. W.J.G.M.P. and C.T. helped with the manuscript revising and data analysis.

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Correspondence to Yongming Luo.

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Li, L., Luo, Y., Li, R. et al. Effective uptake of submicrometre plastics by crop plants via a crack-entry mode. Nat Sustain (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-0567-9

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