A Synthetic Biology Approach Using Engineered Bacteria to Detect Perfluoroalkyl Substance (PFAS) Contamination in Water

By Nathaniel A Young, Ryan L Lambert, Angela M Buch, Christen L Dahl, Jackson D Harris, Michael D Barnhart, John C Sitko, and James Jordan Steel
Mil Med
February 3, 2021
DOI: 10.1093/milmed/usaa367


Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of synthetic compounds used industrially for a wide variety of applications. These PFAS compounds are very stable and persist in the environment. The PFAS contamination is a growing health issue as these compounds have been reported to impact human health and have been detected in both domestic and global water sources. Contaminated water found on military bases poses a potentially serious health concern for active duty military, their families, and the surrounding communities. Previous detection methods for PFAS in contaminated water samples require expensive and time-consuming testing protocols that limit the ability to detect this important global pollutant. The main objective of this work was to develop a novel detection system that utilizes a biological reporter and engineered bacteria as a way to rapidly and efficiently detect PFAS contamination.

Materials And Methods

The United States Air Force Academy International Genetically Engineered Machine team is genetically engineering Rhodococcus jostii strain RHA1 to contain novel DNA sequences composed of a propane 2-monooxygenase alpha (prmA) promoter and monomeric red fluorescent protein (mRFP). The prmA promoter is activated in the presence of PFAS and transcribes the mRFP reporter.


The recombinant R. jostii containing the prmA promoter and mRFP reporter respond to exposure of PFAS by activating gene expression of the mRFP. At 100 µM of perfluorooctanoic acid, the mRFP expression was increased 3-fold (qRT-PCR). Rhodococcus jostii without exposure to PFAS compounds had no mRFP expression.


This novel detection system represents a synthetic biology approach to more efficiently detect PFAS in contaminated samples. With further refinement and modifications, a similar system could be readily deployed in the field around the world to detect this critical pollutant.

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