PITTSBURGH (Oct. 2, 2019) — Chemicals found in many common plastic
consumer items have the potential to contaminate drinking water. One in
particular, bisphenol A (BPA), could contribute to fertility problems, male impotence, heart disease and
other conditions.1 Biofilms, although a common tool used by
engineers to combat contaminants in water, often need the support of other
technology to remove chemicals like BPA.
New research from the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson
School of Engineering has received $420,000 from the National Science Foundation
to combine biofilms and electrodes to degrade BPA.
The project, titled “Collaborative
Research: Engineering Biofilm-Electrode for Organic Contaminant Degradation,”
will be led by Pitt’s David
Sanchez, PhD, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering
and assistant director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. Sanchez
and his team will collaborate on the project with Seok Hoon Hong,
PhD, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the Illinois
Institute of Technology.
“Combining biofilms and electrochemistry can enhance our
methods for removing contaminants from water,” explains Sanchez. “By finding
the right combination of electrode morphology and microorganisms, we can
‘supercharge’ the ability of the microorganisms to degrade BPA.”
BPA is commonly used in food packaging, such as plastic food
and drink containers and as a lining in metal food cans to prevent corrosion.
It has an estimated production of 5 million tons per year and is used in
everyday items from receipt paper to dental sealants. Because of its
prevalence, BPA frequently shows up in the human body: the EPA found detectable
levels of BPA in 93 percent of the urine samples they tested in the U.S.
Biofilms are collections of microorganisms growing on
surfaces - in this case, an electrode. The primary goal of the research is to
increase the amount of BPA they can degrade by creating a perfect match between
organism and electrode. Sanchez will be
developing an electrode that gives the bacteria the ideal environment to
thrive, while Hong will engineer and select the bacteria themselves.
“I believe there’s a ‘Goldilocks’ condition, where the
properties of the electrode are just right to select for these microorganisms,
and my goal is to find it,” says Sanchez. “If we’re successful, this will be a more
effective and sustainable way to target the removal of these types of contaminants
The National Toxicology
Program has expressed concern about the potential effects of BPA on human
reproductive and development—another
study showed that such exposure to BPA in zebrafish disrupted their bodies’
microbial communities, and similar disruption has also been observed in people
with gastrointestinal diseases and autism spectrum disorder.
“It is critical that we as a society prevent the impact
chemical pollutants are having on our bodies and our planet,” says Sanchez. “We
hope our research is a step toward developing effective technologies that
reduce our exposure to BPA, among other contaminants.”
The grant began on Sept. 1, 2019, and is expected to last
through August 2022.
1Brazier, Yvette and Falck, Suzanne MD, FACP. Medical News Today,
25 May 2017.
Maggie Pavlick, 10/2/2019
Contact: Maggie Pavlick