In-Vitro and In-Silico Assessment of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF) Binding to Human Serum Albumin
By Wenting Li, Yuhong Hu, and Heather N Bischel
April 13, 2021
Drinking water contaminated by fluorosurfactant-based aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) is a source of human exposure to poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). However, assessment of bioaccumulation potentials of diverse PFAS in commercial products such as AFFF have been insufficient and challenging, especially due to a lack of analytical standards. Here we explore the value of suspect screening, equilibrium dialysis, and molecular-docking simulations to identify potentially bioaccumulative PFAS. We exposed human serum albumin (HSA) protein to dilutions of a legacy AFFF produced by 3M in 1999 using equilibrium dialysis and screened in-vitro protein-binding affinities using high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS). Through suspect screening, we identified 32 PFAS and 18 hydrocarbon surfactants in the AFFF that bound to HSA. Quantification of noncovalent association constants for 26 PFAS standards confirmed that many PFAS, including the short-chain perfluoropropane sulfonic acid (log K= 4.1 ± 0.2 M), exhibit strong binding affinities with HSA. At least five PFAS in AFFF (including three PFAS with less than five perfluorocarbons) remained bound to the precipitated HSA pellet after extensive solvent washing-an indication of high PFAS binding potential. Three PFAS (PFBS, PFOS, and PFOA) were confirmed in the protein pellet with analytical standards and quantified after acid digestion-this sample fraction accounted for 5 to 20% of each compound mass in the sample. We calculated pseudo-bioconcentration factors (BCF) for PFAS that suspect screening flagged as noncovalently bound or potentially covalently bound. Most PFAS exhibiting high BCF, especially those with seven perfluorocarbons, contained a carboxylic acid or a sulfonic acid. Finally, we used molecular docking to simulate HSA binding affinities for 62 ligands (26 PFAS targets, 18 PFAS qualified in AFFF, and 18 hydrocarbon surfactants qualified in AFFF). We found that molecular docking can effectively separate HSA-binding and -nonbinding compounds in AFFF. In-vitro and in-silico approaches described in this study provide replicable, high-throughput workflows for assessing bioaccumulation potentials of diverse PFAS in commercial products.