Nothing lasts forever: understanding microbial biodegradation of polyfluorinated compounds and perfluorinated alkyl substances
By Lawrence P Wackett
October 5, 2021
Poly- and perfluorinated chemicals, including perfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), are pervasive in today's society, with a negative impact on human and ecosystem health continually emerging. These chemicals are now subject to strict government regulations, leading to costly environmental remediation efforts. Commercial polyfluorinated compounds have been called 'forever chemicals' due to their strong resistance to biological and chemical degradation. Environmental cleanup by bioremediation is not considered practical currently. Implementation of bioremediation will require uncovering and understanding the rare microbial successes in degrading these compounds. This review discusses the underlying reasons why microbial degradation of heavily fluorinated compounds is rare. Fluorinated and chlorinated compounds are very different with respect to chemistry and microbial physiology. Moreover, the end product of biodegradation, fluoride, is much more toxic than chloride. It is imperative to understand these limitations, and elucidate physiological mechanisms of defluorination, in order to better discover, study, and engineer bacteria that can efficiently degrade polyfluorinated compounds.