Award for Distinguished Innovation goes to Peter Jaffé and Shan Huang for bacteria that break down persistent environmental contaminants

Written by
Alaina O'Regan, Office of the Dean for Research
Oct. 12, 2023

In recognition of the importance to society of innovative research and scholarship, the 2023 Dean for Research Award for Distinguished Innovation will be awarded to Peter Jaffé, William L. Knapp Professor of Civil Engineering and professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Shan Huang, professional specialist in civil and environmental engineering, for the development of bacterial approaches to eliminating harmful contaminants that are persistent in the environment.

Sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals,” per and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) persist in global water supplies, soil, air, and in the blood of a large majority of people and animals in the United States. These chemicals have been linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals, and they represent one of the most pressing emerging contaminant problems in the environmental sciences.

Although some of the chemicals have been phased out of products by U.S. manufacturers, the substances were used for decades in products such as non-stick pans and fire-fighting foam. The chemicals resist breaking down in the environment because of the strength of the carbon-fluorine bond.

Jaffé, Huang and their team discovered a new bacterium, Acidimicrobium A6, that can break this bond. The team first found the bacterium in a New Jersey swamp known as the Assunpink wetland not far from Princeton. 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 researchers’ next step is to conduct field-scale demonstration experiments of the various technologies that they have developed.

The project received funding from Princeton School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Project X and the Helen Shipley Hunt Fund to support early-stage research, and the endeavor also attracted funding from Princeton’s Intellectual Property Accelerator Fund as well as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Defense, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. 

Now in its fourth year, the Dean for Research Award for Distinguished Innovation recognizes a technology or innovation led by a Princeton faculty member whose scholarly activity and creative thinking provides solutions to societal challenges. The award is part of the University’s commitment to fostering a culture of innovation and raising the visibility of Princeton’s innovators.

Prior recipients of the Dean for Research Award for Distinguished Innovation include, in 2022, Zemer Gitai, Princeton’s Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology and professor of molecular biology, for a new drug-discovery platform that searches out drug candidates with unique or novel mechanisms of action. The 2021 award was given to Mohammad Seyedsayamdost, professor of chemistry, for a system for discovering entirely new classes of antibiotics. The 2020 award was given to Robert Prud’homme, professor of chemical and biological engineering, who received the inaugural award for the invention of flash nanoprecipitation, a method of creating nanoparticles for targeted delivery of medications.