Blood concentrations of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are associated with autoimmune-like effects in American alligators from Wilmington, North Carolina

Front Toxicol. 2022 Oct 20:4:1010185. doi: 10.3389/ftox.2022.1010185. eCollection 2022.


Surface and groundwater of the Cape Fear River basin in central and coastal North Carolina is contaminated with high levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Elevated levels of PFAS have also been found in blood of fish and wildlife from the Cape Fear River, and in the blood of human populations reliant on contaminated well or surface water from the Cape Fear River basin as a source of drinking water. While the public and environmental health impacts of long-term PFAS exposures are poorly understood, elevated blood concentrations of some PFAS are linked with immunotoxicity and increased incidence of some chronic autoimmune diseases in human populations. The goal of this One Environmental Health study was to evaluate PFAS exposure and biomarkers related to immune health in populations of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis), a protected and predictive sentinel species of adverse effects caused by persistent toxic pollutants. We found that serum PFAS concentrations in alligator populations from the Cape Fear River were increased compared to a reference population of alligators from the adjoining Lumber River basin. The elevated serum PFAS concentrations in the Cape Fear River alligators were associated with increased innate immune activities, and autoimmune-like phenotypes in this population. In addition to evidence of significantly higher double stranded-DNA binding autoantibodies in adult Cape Fear River alligators, our qRT-PCR analysis found remarkably high induction of Interferon-α signature genes implicated in the pathology of human autoimmune disease. We interpret the association of increased PFAS exposure with disrupted immune functions to suggest that PFAS broadly alters immune activities resulting in autoimmune-like pathology in American alligators. This work substantiates and extends evidence from experimental models and human epidemiology studies showing that some PFAS are immune toxicants.

Keywords: PFAS; autoantibodies; autoimmune; crocodilian; immune toxicity; lupus; one health.