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Your Environment. Your Health.

Marine Bacteria Produce Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs)

Bradley Moore, Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego
NIEHS Grant P01ES021921

Researchers discovered a widely distributed group of marine bacteria that produce polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) nearly identical to toxic man-made fire retardants. The study is the first to isolate and identify bacteria that synthesize these endocrine-disrupting compounds, and the findings may help explain the PBDEs observed to bioaccumulate in the marine food chain.

PBDEs were widely used as flame retardants in furniture, carpet padding, and other consumer products, until most were removed voluntarily from the market a decade ago. For some time, scientists have observed bioaccumulation of PBDEs in the fatty tissues of marine animals but believed the compounds came from manmade pollution making its way into the ocean. More recently, mounting evidence pointed to microbial sources of marine PBDEs, but scientists did not know which organisms were producing the compounds.

In the new work, the researchers identified and isolated bacteria that synthesize PBDEs and discovered 10 genes involved in the synthesis of more than 15 bromine-containing polyaromatic compounds, including some PBDEs. They have since conducted DNA sequencing analyses that will allow them to probe the ocean for other biological sources for these chemicals and to begin to assemble a complete picture of their human health risk.

Citation: Agarwal V, El Gamal AA, Yamanaka K, Poth D, Kersten RD, Schorn M, Allen EE, Moore BS. 2014. Biosynthesis of polybrominated aromatic organic compounds by marine bacteria. Nat Chem Biol 10(8):640-647.