Research brief: Diamonds are "forever", PFAS are not

Researchers identify a path toward potentially breaking down polyflourinated chemicals.
December 11, 2023

Credit: Getty Images

PFAS (polyflourinated chemicals) have come to be known as “forever chemicals” because they are extremely difficult to break down and can cause environmental harm over years and decades. From cosmetics to pesticides to frying pans, a wide array of products use these chemicals, and as a result they have become pervasive in our environment. Billions of dollars are already being spent on remediation while the problem of PFAS pollution continues. Some scientists believe that biological breakdown of PFAS is impossible, but new research has taken a closer look at the problem and identified a path forward.  

The researchers wanted to better understand why PFAS (polyfluorinated chemicals) are so hard to remove from the environment. The team: 

  • identified an enzyme that can degrade fluorinated compounds.
  • engineered a bacterium to make this enzyme.
  • showed how and why the breakdown of the chemical is toxic to the bacterium and discovered a path by which this could be overcome.

“Although the element fluorine has always been present on Earth, it was mostly bound up in rocks where living organisms were not exposed to it,” said co-author Lawrence Wackett, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences. “Thousands of PFAS chemicals are now manufactured for uses such as drugs, pesticides, and coolants. Researchers have found that they are toxic to humans and animals. Our study has laid a foundation that can make biological breakdown of PFAS in the environment possible in an inexpensive and efficient way.”

This research was supported by MnDRIVE.

Find the full article on the UMN News website