A New Jersey Soil Bacteria Is First to Break Down Toxic 'Forever Chemical'

The experimental setup.
Photo: David Kelly Crow

Scientists have found a bacteria capable of breaking down toxic “forever chemicals” in New Jersey soil.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS, are commonly found in in products like water-repellant fabrics and paints, disposable restaurant bowls, and even dental floss. They’re also toxic pollutants that are incredibly difficult to break down in the environment, ending up in our water and traveling up the food chain. Scientists are naturally looking for ways to break down these so-called forever chemicals.

Advertisement

“We were curious about what this organism could do, and were really surprised at how well it’s working,” Peter Jaffé, study author and professor of civil and environmental engineering at Princeton University, told Gizmodo.

Back in 2005, scientists noticed a strange chemical reaction that broke down ammonium ions in low-oxygen, acidic soil, which they called the Feammox process. Visits to the Assunpink Wildlife Management area allowed scientists to isolate the responsible microorganism, called Acidimicrobium sp. strain A6; further research demonstrated that it could break down pollutants like trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene. The biggest challenge, and one that hadn’t yet been achieved, would be breaking all of the especially tough chemical bonds between carbon and fluorine. After sequencing the bacteria’s genome, the researchers wondered whether A6 could break down the forever chemicals, PFAS.

The researchers generated two cultures of A6, one pure and the other enriched with iron and ammonium ions. They mixed the bacteria cultures with the most common PFAS, called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and monitored the mixture for a 100-day incubation period.

After the wait, the researchers found that the bacteria had reduced the amount of PFOA by 33 percent in the pure culture and by 50 percent in the enriched culture. The findings for PFOS were similar, with the pure bacteria reducing it by 23 percent and the enriched bacteria reducing it by 47 percent, according to the paper published in Environmental Science and Technology.

Advertisement

Perhaps building more wetlands with acidic, high-iron soil could help in the removal of PFAS from groundwater, Jaffé told Gizmodo. However, Jaffé pointed out that the effect might not be seen outside of the specific conditions created in the lab.

The research has already set off a buzz in the industry, as PFAS continue to be a hot topic—just yesterday, Home Depot said it would no longer sell PFAS-laden rugs. Other scientists are interested in the work as well. “I think his work provides an important foundation for a new approach to remediate PFAS-contaminated sites,” Detlef Knappe, professor at North Carolina State University who was not involved in the work, told Gizmodo in an email.

Advertisement

It’s just a proof of concept, but one thing is certain: we have to do something about these chemicals.

Share This Story

About the author

Ryan F. Mandelbaum

Science writer at Gizmodo | I like physics and eating