Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainability forms the heart of our efforts

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Sustainable Development Goals Overview

Sustainability forms the bedrock of our research project, shaping every facet of its inception, development, and implementation. From the initial stages of identifying our core issue to the fine-tuning of our experimental design, and the eventual integration of human practices, it was clear every step of the way that our goal of PFAS degradation was inextricably linked to the principles of sustainable development. To provide a clear framework for our efforts, we turned to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) established by the United Nations (UN) in 2015 (1).

The UN's SDGs present a comprehensive roadmap for addressing the most pressing challenges facing our world today. They encompass a wide range of objectives, from eradicating poverty and hunger to ensuring access to quality education, clean water, and affordable, clean energy. By choosing to center our project around these internationally endorsed goals, we are not only adhering to a universal call for action but also contributing to the global effort to create a more sustainable and equitable future.

We identified two SDGs that best encapsulate the essence of our research project and its potential impact. These goals became the pillars on which our research project stands, guiding our every move and driving our determination to create lasting, positive change. In the following sections, we will delve into the details of these chosen SDGs, explaining how each one intersects with our project and the outcomes we hope to achieve. Through this alignment, we hope to exemplify the profound potential of the SDGs as a compass for meaningful global progress.

SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation

The UN defines the Clean Water and Sanitation SDG as the assurance of accessible and sustainable water and sanitation services for all (2). At ASU, we take immense pride in being the top-ranked U.S. institution contributing to the UN's Clean Water and Sanitation SDG. Our university's leadership role in the Arizona Water Innovation Initiative further underscores our commitment to addressing water-related challenges. As students at ASU, we recognize the significance of making this SDG the cornerstone of our project's development. Therefore, right from the brainstorming stage, we were dedicated to aligning our project with this SDG to ensure a maximal positive impact on clean water in Arizona.

The state of Arizona, in particular, has grappled with a severe issue of PFAS contamination in its water sources. As droughts become increasingly prevalent, reliance on groundwater as a water supply has surged (3). Alarmingly, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has identified at least 57 public water systems in Arizona with PFAS contamination, a number that is only expected to increase in the coming years (4). For instance, Tempe alone contends with six public water systems exhibiting PFAS levels that far exceed the health advisory levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (5). Since every member of the ASU iGEM team calls Arizona home, we felt a profound obligation to address the PFAS issue.

Unfortunately, existing technologies for PFAS removal often fall short of the magnitude of the problem, largely due their prohibitive cost and excessive energy consumption (4). For example, after PFAS is extracted from water, it is frequently incinerated, but this method is inadequate for complete PFAS breakdown (6). The byproducts of incomplete combustion, fragments of PFAS compounds, will re-enter the atmosphere, potentially leading to recontamination of soil and water (7). Issues like this pose a significant challenge for water management authorities as it forces them to make substantial investments in water purification. Consequently, the imperative is clear: we must develop a solution that ensures the sustainable management of PFAS-contaminated water.

In our pursuit of this goal, we sought support from ASU's Office of the President. Given our university's strong emphasis on SDG 6, they warmly received our proposal and awarded us $20,000 to advance this mission.

During our project development, we immediately recognized the potential of a synthetic biology approach, particularly one involving bioremediation, as a sustainable means of breaking down PFAS chemicals without resorting to high-energy processes like incineration. Choosing E. coli as our organism of choice aligns with our commitment to environmental sustainability, as it inherently offers self-sustainability. Moreover, using E. coli to house defluorinating enzymes is a more sustainable choice compared to utilizing conventional palladium catalysts for catalyzing the removal of fluorine atoms, ensuring an environmentally conscious method. Finally, E. coli is capable of growing and dividing extremely rapidly, making it an ideal candidate for a low-cost but scalable solution for PFAS

Furthermore, during our engagement in the human practices component of our project, particularly the collection of water samples for the development of a PFAS heatmap, we established communication with a stakeholder in the industry of water management, the Environmental Supervisor for the City of Surprise Stephanie Pezzelle. In a phone call with Stephanie, she expressed keen interest in our project and emphasized how its success and implementation would be immensely beneficial to everyone, particularly for those in water management positions across Arizona. This further solidified our approach to tackling PFAS degradation, as it promises both clean water and its sustainable management, aligning harmoniously with the core objectives of the Clean Water and Sanitation SDG.

SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being

SDG 3, which seeks to ensure healthy lives and well-being for individuals of all ages, is profoundly intertwined with our project's mission. PFAS poses a substantial threat to human health and well-being due to its unique environmental persistence and bioaccumulative behavior (8). This insidious characteristic of PFAS compounds has far-reaching consequences for health as these substances gradually accumulate in organisms across the food chain.

The bioaccumulative behavior of PFAS is a critical aspect that cannot be understated. PFAS, once ingested by organisms lower on the food chain, steadily ascend through the ecosystem, accumulating in higher concentrations with each step (9). As such, when humans consume biological products such as fish and meat, they are at risk of ingesting PFAS at levels that can easily exceed safety thresholds. On top of this, the widespread use of PFAS in various products and processes has led to nearly constant exposure to these substances in water, air, and soil.

This continuous exposure has severe health repercussions, including an elevated risk of cancer, adverse effects on child development, reduced fertility, increased cholesterol levels, and compromised immune responses (10). Moreover, certain segments of the population face heightened risks of PFAS exposure. For example, industrial workers employed in industries associated with PFAS production or located near PFAS-producing facilities are at an elevated risk of exposure. Furthermore, infants may potentially encounter PFAS through breast milk (11). There is also a possibility of PFAS exposure during the prenatal period, as some individuals may pass on these substances to their unborn children during pregnancy.

The current absence of state regulatory limits for PFAS in Arizona is concerning, particularly given the ADEQ's recent reports of 57 sites with significantly elevated levels of PFAS contamination in public water systems across various counties, surpassing the EPA regulatory limits (4). Given the potential health impacts associated with PFAS contamination, it is imperative to address the stunning lack of PFAS regulation in Arizona through the introduction of new legislative measures.

To address these issues, we designed our integrated human practices work to prioritize human health and well-being. First, we created a heatmap showcasing PFAS contamination levels across Arizona in partnership with SRPMIC. Their support for our project initiative allowed us to access water samples from three previously unsampled water wells. The data collected for this map has the potential to raise awareness of PFAS at the political level and support future environmental policies in Arizona, specifically related to PFAS regulation, to secure the health and well-being of the community.

However, changing policies alone is insufficient if the public remains uninformed about the impact of PFAS on their health. To bridge this gap, we initiated an IRB-approved survey aimed at gauging PFAS awareness in Arizona. Surprisingly, within the 17-26 year old population, 70% of the respondents had never heard of PFAS, PFOA, or PFOS before the survey. This glaring need for enhanced PFAS education and awareness, particularly among the youth, led us to focus our first advocacy and awareness event on this age group. During this event, we delivered a comprehensive presentation that underscored the dangers of PFAS to humans, animals, and the environment to increase general public awareness.

Moreover, we collaborated with Dr. Miyeko Mana and Dominic Saiz, a PhD student in her lab, whose research revolves around the impact of different diets on stem cells and their roles in cancer initiation. Leveraging their expertise of the human gut microbiome, we explored future avenues of research for the application of our project. By investigating how the results from our research can be applied in the context of the human microbiome, an area of the body that is particularly vulnerable to PFAS, we aim to make a meaningful contribution to addressing the urgent issue of PFAS contamination and its potential impacts on human health and well-being (12).

Finally, at the heart of our research project is the ultimate goal: to engineer E. coli to be capable of completely degrading PFAS present in water. As mentioned previously, our implementation strategy involves deploying Beta-FluorinX within a water filtration bio-membrane or as an additive in the activated sludge process to effectively dismantle PFAS contaminants. Moreover, to prevent PFAS recontamination, our proposed plan will also include UV sterilization and a secondary membrane filtration. While this water treatment process is slower, it ensures clean water and halts continued PFAS contamination. Therefore, our genetically engineered microorganism will play a pivotal role in curbing the proliferation of PFAS, thereby breaking the bioaccumulation cycle. This intervention will set in motion a positive chain reaction, progressively reducing the concentration of PFAS that accumulates within the human body. This, in turn, will contribute to improved health outcomes by lowering the risk of associated diseases. In doing so, we align our efforts with the UN's SDG 3, harnessing the power of scientific innovation to tackle the global challenge of enhancing the overall health and well-being of individuals across the world.