UNCW researchers find sea sponges may ‘eat’ toxic compounds like PFAS

UNCW researchers find sea sponges may ‘eat’ toxic compounds like PFAS
Updated: Jun. 7, 2021 at 2:32 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Its been four years since news broke that GenX was found in the drinking water of thousands of people in the region.

Since the discovery, there’s been lawsuits, protests and the promise of new regulations, but this spring scientists have announced promising research that could change how we handle environmental disasters in the future.

Wilmington researchers are one step closer to unlocking the secrets of the ocean. As corals die, experts are seeing sea sponges take over and make their mark on the ecosystem.

“We are one of the first groups that have been doing this kind of work, to see what sponges are doing to the molecules in the seawater,” said UNCW PHD student Lauren Olinger.

Samples are collected in the coral reefs of Belize and analyzed at UNCW.

Olinger and her team are using cutting edge techniques to test the water samples, and have found that the sea sponges they’re studying are actually eating material dissolved in the water. Some of the “food” the animals are taking in are considered pollutants.

“The really novel result of Lauren’s work is that among the dissolved molecules in the seawater are compounds that have halides, things like bromine and chlorine associated with them, and Wilmingtonians will know those kind of compounds are the PFOAS that are in the Cape Fear River that are produced in the process of making Teflon,” said Marine Biology professor Joe Pawlik.

In a nutshell, these sea sponges are eating toxic material, like PFAS.

“In the future, if research determines that the sponges are able to take up pollutants like flame retardants, PCBs, then there might be some bioremediation,” said Olinger. “Create little areas sponges are, to try and remove pollutants out of the seawater.”

It’s a hopeful first chapter for environmentalists and a redemption story for the humble sea sponge.

“Sponges are not primitive. Everyone talks about sponges like they’re hardly animals, right, but the things they do are really sophisticated and amazing,” added Pawlick.

Olinger’s work can be found in the May 2021 edition of Frontiers in Marine Science.

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