Even as the Air Force Academy deals with a new report on toxic levels of perfluorinated chemicals at the school, its brightest minds are working on new ways to detect the pollution and clean it up.
The academy’s biology department wants to use genetic engineering to build microbes, dubbed biological machines, to find perfluorinated compounds and destroy them. A team of cadets led by professor Jordan Steel hopes that bacteria can solve a pollution problem that has evaded other solutions.
A report issued Friday found the chemical in groundwater at an academy fire training site at a level that’s 1,000 times above the concentration deemed safe by federal and state regulators. Air Force officials say the chemical may have contaminated groundwater off the school’s campus and state health officials warned well users south of the academy to switch to bottled water.
For Steel and his team fighting pollution, the main issue is finding the right bacteria and tweaking its genetics to do the job.
“There’s a lot of microbes we can choose from,” said Steel.
The school has taken a two-pronged approach to the problem, with an early emphasis on detecting the chemicals. Perflourinated compounds are considered harmful in tiny amounts — 70 parts per trillion. That means the tests to find the chemicals are time-consuming and expensive.
Steel hopes he’s found a microbe to do the job faster and cheaper.
Steel and his cadet team identified a bacteria commonly found in soil that exhibits a “stress response” when exposed to perfluorinated chemicals like those found in an Air Force firefighting foam tied to pollution in El Paso County groundwater.
Just a small genetic tweak to the bacteria could make it a perfect device to test for the chemicals.
“We’re trying to put in a fluorescent protein,” Steel said.
That would make the microbe change color when its exposed to perfluorinated contamination.
Early results of academy testing are promising, Steel said. New efforts are underway to get the bacteria tuned to find the tiny amount of chemical that renders water toxic.
Bacteria could also help clean up perfluorinated waste.
A big issue in dealing with perfluorinated compounds is the strength of the atomic bonds within the man-made molecules. With a backbone of eight carbon atoms, the compounds don’t break down in the environment, earning them the name “forever chemicals.”
But a bacteria that’s genetically programmed to eat the chemicals could render them harmless.
Steel explained that bacteria are miniature factories for refining chemicals. They can devour complex proteins, and some have proven useful in the cleanup of oil spills.
“We’re screening samples and looking for bacteria that can degrade perfluorinated compounds,” he said.
The work involves exposing a wide-range of bacteria to the chemicals and finding which of them could mutate into perfluorinated killing machines. Steel said bacteria, with high reproductive rates and miniscule life spans, can quickly evolve, and researchers could just be a few mutations away from a perfluorinated solution.
Senior cadet Angela Buch is helping lead the cadet research team on the project.
“It is incredible working with other cadets,” she said.
Buch spent her summer at the Air Force Research Laboratory in Ohio working on the academy project.
While a final solution could be years away, Buch said it’s gratifying to work on an issue that could help people in El Paso County and solve an Air Force problem.
Steel said while hope abounds for a breakthrough, dealing with genetically modified bacteria is an effort that requires patience.
Each permutation could take Steel’s team closer to a solution, or lead them farther afield.
“We’re still very much in the development stage,” he said.