Peter Jaffé: Bioremediation of long-lasting contaminants

Aug. 30, 2022

Researchers have discovered a bacterium that can biodegrade chemicals that are persistent in the environment and that may cause harmful effects in humans and animals. 

Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” PFAS (per and polyfluorinated alkyl substances) are persistent in global water supplies, soil, and air, as well as in the blood of a large majority of people and animals in the United States.

A number of the compounds have been linked with harmful health effects. Although some of the chemicals have been phased out of products by U.S. manufacturers, the substances were widely used for decades in a variety of products from non-stick pans to fire-fighting foam. Until now, researchers thought that breaking down these chemicals was impossible due to the strength of the carbon-fluorine bond.

Princeton researchers have discovered a new bacterium, Acidimicrobium A6, that is able to break this bond and biodegrade these chemicals. Technologies that harness this bacterial activity could remove PFAS from soil and water in locations where they are highly concentrated, such as airports, naval facilities and wastewater treatment plants.

The biggest challenge is that these bacteria are extremely slow growing. The team is looking at ways to speed up bacterial production through various means, such as novel bioelectrochemical reactors and new ways of supplying required nutrients. Ultimately, the researchers hope to create a highly effective approach to remediating contaminated soil and water.

“This is the first time that an organism has been shown to break down these chemicals, and we think that it could be a highly effective means of cleaning up these contaminated sites.” — Peter Jaffé

Co-inventor:
Shan Huang, Professional Specialist

Collaborators:
Jason Ren, Princeton Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment; Mohammad Seyedsayamdost, Princeton Professor of Chemistry: Daniel Steingart, Columbia University; Larry Wackett, University of Minnesota; Mengyan Li, NJIT; Charles Schaefer, CDM Smith
 
Team members:
Graduate students Camila Llerena-Olivera, Jinhee Park, Matthew Sima, Chiara Smorada, Joel Strothers; Melany Ruiz-Urigüen, Ph.D. ’19; Arianna Sherman, Ph.D. ’20; Weitao Shuai, Ph.D. ’21 

Development status:
Patent pending. Princeton is seeking outside interest for the development of this technology.

Funding: Princeton Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Helen Shipley Hund Fund, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Defense

Learn more: 
[email protected]
pjrg.princeton.edu

Licensing contact:
Prabhpreet Gill
Technology Licensing Associate
[email protected]