Clean water is fundamental for human and planet health - and the key to a sustainable world. The consequences of irresponsible production and consumption practices threaten our water. All around the globe, hazardous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contaminate bodies of water, soil, crops, and even humans1. Since the 1950s, PFAS have been used in various products, such as non-stick pans, raincoats, fire extinguishing foam, and other water-repellent products. Thousands of different variants of PFAS molecules exist, and due to the strong carbon-fluorine bonds in the molecules, they are extremely resistant to degradation. PFAS are therefore known as the ‘forever chemicals’.
Production of PFAS-containing products has left all generations with a widespread contamination problem to clean up. At vitroFAS, we aim to improve the health of humans and the planet by degrading PFAS in drinking and wastewater. While degradation is a treatment of symptoms and not the problem, we also want to encourage a change in supply and demand for PFAS-containing products by informing consumers about the PFAS problem.
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These ‘forever chemicals’ find their way into our groundwater, accumulate through the food chain, and inevitably end up in the bloodstream of humans. Though all the long-term effects of PFAS exposure are still not fully understood, studies have shown that exposure to PFAS have harmful effects like reduced fertility and increased risk of certain cancers1,2.
Effects of PFAS exposure in adults3
- Thyroid disease
- Increased cholesterol levels
- Reduced liver function
- Decreased antibody response to vaccines
- Kidney cancer
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Testicular cancer
- Lower semen quality
Effects of PFAS exposure in babies' development3
- Low birth weight
- Delayed mammary gland development
- Decreased antibody response to vaccines
- Obesity in childhood
- Early puberty onset
- Increased risk of miscarriage
PFAS production has been progressively regulated within the European Union as new research has emerged. However, the half-lives of certain PFAS molecules have been estimated to be more than a thousand years4. Hence PFAS will persist in nature for a long time and will continue to find its way into human bodies through food and water. PFAS is going to be a problem for many generations to come.
A sustainable solution for the effective removal of PFAS is therefore critical.
We at vitroFAS want to tackle the PFAS contamination in drinking and wastewater with our biotechnology solution: vitroZymes. Our vitroZymes are optimized dehalogenases, which are PFAS degrading enzymes.
The wild-type enzymes are inefficient, so we opted to enhance them before implementing the enzymes in the real world. Given the huge array of different PFAS molecules, we decided to focus on combatting one of the most prevalent and harmful PFAS molecules - Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA)5. Using PFOA as a model molecule, we strive to effectively optimize the dehalogenases using Error-prone PCR technology.
Read more about our project design here
A Sustainable Future
vitroFAS is devoted to a more sustainable future by providing a sustainable solution to PFAS degradation. PFAS is currently degraded at incineration facilities, where the molecules are heated up to 980°C to 1200°C in hazardous waste incinerators. This process costs a lot of energy, and studies have shown that harmful byproducts, as well as secondary air and soil pollution after incineration are problematic6.
During our project, we worked towards aligning our efforts with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs).
3) Good Health and Well-Being – Based on current research, our solution will enhance health and well-being by removing PFOA from water supplies using our vitroZymes. Lowering exposure will benefit all life on Earth.
6) Clean Water and Sanitation – Through the removal of PFOA, we aim to improve drinking water quality and prevent PFOA from polluting the environment through wastewater.
12) Responsible Consumption and Production – We aim to reduce the amount of PFOA currently present in our ecosystem. Through sustainability events our goal is to raise awareness of the effects PFAS contamination has on our water supplies.
14) Life Below Water – Given the hazardous effects of PFAS on life, we seek to eliminate PFAS released into the ecosystem.
Read more about our sustainable initiatives here
Future Potential and Perspectives
PFAS filters already exist for processing drinking water and wastewater, but currently there is no way of degrading PFAS efficiently, sustainably, and permanently. We want to implement our vitroZymes as a step in the already existing filter system that waterworks use when cleaning our drinking water. By doing this, human ingestion of PFAS and future pollution of the environment is avoided.
Read more about our filter here
vitroFAS Promotion Video