Nanotechnology-Enhanced Biodegradation of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)

Funding: National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences/National Institute of Health

Collaborators: Ian Bradley and Nirupam Aich (University at Buffalo)

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are a broad class of human-made compounds manufactured since the 1950s that have been widely used in consumer products and industrial applications worldwide. The extensive production and use of PFASs, in combination with their unique properties of thermal and chemical-stability persistence and relatively high water solubility, has resulted in widespread contamination of the aquatic environment, including drinking water. There is a growing awareness that these chemicals have a broad environmental impact and are linked to a range of adverse health outcomes and negatively impact ecosystems. Most studies report perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) because of their high frequency of occurrence and bioaccumulation invertebrates8, 9 and carcinogenicity in humans. As a result, PFOA and PFOS (legacy PFASs) have been phased out, and new replacements such as perfluorobutane sulfonic acid (PFBS) and perfluoroalkyl ether acids (e.g., GenX) have emerged as alternatives (emerging PFASs). However, these emerging PFASs are persistent and ubiquitous, and some of them show worse health effects on the kidney, thyroid, immune system, and developing fetus, and data are suggestive of cancer. Hence, remediation technologies that achieve complete degradation of PFASs in the environment are urgently needed. In this project, our approach is to completely degrade PFASs using catalytic nanomaterials and microbial communities. The specific aims of this research are:

  1. Synthesize multifunctional redox-active nanohybrid materials and evaluate their catalytic properties for PFASs degradation  (dehalogenation, degradation of long-chain to short-chains).
  2.  Assess the potential and efficacy of biodegradation and mineralization of short-chain PFAS
  3.  Perform molecular modeling to discover, detect, and refine enzymatic biodegradation

To achieve these goals, multidisciplinary team expertise in nanomaterials design, microbial ecology, bio-molecular modelling, and analytical chemistry is actively working. This research contributes significantly towards developing an efficient nano-bioremediation approach that provides a pathway for complete PFAS mineralization in contaminated aquatic environments. In addition, the unique contributions from molecular modeling enable both the mechanistic understanding and design capabilities for further refining the biodegradation and nano-enabled treatment of PFASs. By combining our expertise in nanomaterial design, microbiology, chemical characterization, and molecular modeling, our integrative methodology enables the design of a synergistic system to completely degrade, defluorinate, and mineralize diverse PFASs. Knowledge gained from this research will substantially advance efforts to accelerate the bioremediation of this ubiquitous class of contaminants and prevent further human exposure to these bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals.