Implications of Perfluoroalkyl Substances on Microbial Function

Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are strictly manmade compounds that are found in a multitude of environmental systems as a result of use in many industrial and consumer products. While PFAS have been associated with a variety of biotic effects including an increased susceptibility to co-contaminants, their primary mechanism of action is yet unknown. It is also not known whether PFAS have an effect on microbial function. A few studies have cited evidence of altered permeability of biological membranes upon exposure to PFAS, though this has not been conclusively demonstrated. A change in cell permeability could change microbial function and susceptibility to other co-contaminants present. Elevated concentrations of PFAS and co-contaminants are often observed in landfills and wastewater treatment plants where microorganisms are critical components of waste treatment systems utilized to protect human health. Impacts on microbial function were studied by observing methane production (methane can be used to produce energy) in anaerobic digesters exposed to varying PFAS and co-contaminants and by looking at disruptions in communication pathways. These pathways can be responsible for functions such as luminescence, pathogenicity, and biofilm formation. Results from this study will help the scientific community better understand the range of microbial effects associated with PFAS exposure and the concentrations at which these effects become important. The PFAS chemical characteristics (functional group and chain length) associated with negative effects will also be determined to help industries design chemicals to minimize environmental effects and maintain microbial function.

Project Staff: 

Nicole Mohapp, Carlise Sorenson, Dr. Matt Simcik, and Dr. Paige Novak