A bacterial bullseye

Matty Bygd, blonde, in lab coat, stands before a row of shelves well stocked with chemical reagents.

Some 9,000 of them affect us every day, in roles ranging from repelling grease and water from our clothing to coating the interiors of nonstick cookware. They’ve also been linked to various serious health conditions. 

They are the PFAS, a class of polyfluorinated chemicals. They stubbornly resist being broken down, so they tend to accumulate in soil and water. Getting rid of them requires microbes with special chemical talent. Now, U of M graduate student Maddy Bygd has used a method she devised to identify a candidate bacterium, setting the stage for future applied research.

It belongs to the bacterial genus Pseudomonas, which is commonly found in soil. Bygd, a microbial engineering grad student, studied how the organism worked its magic. She worked alongside three College of Biological Sciences researchers: Larry Wackett, Kelly Aukema, and Jack Richman. In December 2021 they published the work in the journal mBio.

“We started working through the mechanism and it made a lot of sense, why it was happening, how it was happening,” says Bygd, who graduates this spring (2022). “So we started to be able to kind of unravel that story.”

As an undergrad, she worked in the Wackett lab, where she was impressed by the intricacies of microbiology and biochemistry and “really, really started to enjoy learning about the environment and how essential microbes are to global cycles, health and agriculture.” 

“Maddy has followed up her excellent work for the mBio paper by devising a high-throughput screening method to detect new PFAS-degrading bacteria and enzymes,” says Wackett. “Overall, she is making a big impact in the field of PFAS research.

A longer form of this story appears on the College of Biological Sciences website.