Description of Our Project

Team USAFA is working to detect and degrade two perfluorinated compounds, Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS). These compounds fall under the chemical classification PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Alkyl Substance), and are extremely stable in the environment due to their highly fluorinated alkyl tail. These two substances cause severe health effects and are found ubiquitously throughout the developed world. In order to better understand the abundance of PFAS in the environment, we have created a biosensor to detect PFOA and PFOS by utilizing a PFAS-sensitive promoter from Rhodococcus jostii to express mRFP. In addition to detecting the presence of these two compounds, we are actively searching for a dehalogenase that possesses the ability to defluorinate PFOA and PFOS, opening up the carbon tail for further degradation by the native bacterial metabolic pathway. We have identified two haloacid dehalogenases from Delftia acidovorans, a common soil microbe that was isolated from a long-term PFAS contamination site.

How Did We Get Here?

To date, PFAS (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances) contamination and subsequent clean up cost the US Air Force over $357 million, while the Department of Defense anticipates spending a staggering $2 Billion 1,2 . In Colorado, our local communities and neighboring Air Force bases struggle with this issue, yet the options for remediation of contaminated areas is limited. The USAFA iGEM decided to harness the power of biotechnology to find a creative solution to this pressing and costly problem.


PFAS contamination is a global problem, not only affecting the United States Air Force and Department of Defense, but almost every country in the world. Due to the nature of PFAS, this problem will not solve itself, so it is up to science to discover a solution that will help clean up our world, save our ecosystems, and prevent negative health effects.

How is This Project a Useful Application of Synthetic Biology?

Currently, any process capable of partial PFAS detection or degradation is expensive and inefficient. To solve this problem, the USAFA iGEM team believes that synthetic biology and bioengineering may be the answer. Due to the environmental nature of our project, we believe that a biological solution may already exist, and we just need to identify and improve the solution that nature has already created. Using pre-existing promoters, enzymes, and biological responses in an optimized and engineered way may be the best chance at detecting and destroying these PFAS chemicals.


  1. Ford, Kylie N., "There Must Be Something in the Water: Understanding PFAS Contamination of Groundwater as a National Security Issue" (2019).