Bioremediating Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2021-2022)


By 2025, we may be throwing away over 2.2 billion tons of plastics each year. Sadly, much of this plastic ends up in our waterways. Our oceans are home to enormous piles of plastic debris scattered throughout the water column. Ingestion of plastics by marine species has a substantial negative impact on their health. Additionally, plastic bioaccumulation in fish can transmit carcinogens up the food chain to our dinner plates. Yet despite the staggering volume of debris produced annually and the clear environmental and human health impacts, plastic waste continues to accumulate. There is an urgent need to develop novel strategies to combat bioaccumulation of plastics.

Project Description 

Researchers recently identified a bacterium that had evolved two enzymes, PETase and MHETase, which together convert plastic into biodegradable products. These enzymes represent powerful new tools for bioremediation efforts. The project’s goal is to leverage these newly identified enzymes to create a lab strain of bacteria capable of rapidly degrading plastic to restore environmental health and conserve marine biodiversity. Building on the work of previous teams, the 2021-2022 team will use adaptive selection to identify high-efficiency plastic-degrading enzymes, identify and test candidate plastic-degrading enzymes/species and test if plastic acts as a carrier for environmental toxins. 

Drawing on a library of PETase mutants, the team will optimize the existing system to enhance plastic degradation. To do this, team members will use adaptive evolution to select the most efficient PETase mutants from the library. 

Working with previously identified enzymes with high sequence conservation to known plastic-degrading enzymes, the team will test if these enzymes are capable of plastic degradation by expressing these enzymes in E. coli, incubating with plastic and analyzing by mass spectrometry. 

Although both marine organisms and humans routinely ingest plastic, the effects of plastic at the cellular level remain unknown. Using plastic additives with known cancer-causing potential, team members will test if plastics induce cancer-like phenotypes in mammalian cells by carrying or leaching carcinogenic compounds.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed manuscripts; preliminary data for external funding applications


Summer 2021 – Summer 2022

  • Summer 2021 (optional): Team icebreakers by Zoom; one-on-one informational interviews with new and current team members; draft team structure and task assignments
  • Fall 2021: Complete informational interviews; finalize team structure and task assignments; begin research project
  • Spring 2022: Continue research projects; participate in high school outreach program; begin writing papers; pursue grant submissions; present at conferences
  • Summer 2020 (optional): Continue research projects; finalize writing and submit papers 

This Team in the News

Three Duke Juniors Named Barry M. Goldwater Scholars for Achievements in STEM

Meet the Members of the 2021-2022 Bass Connections Student Advisory Council

See related teams, Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2022-2023) and Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2020-2021).


Image: Marine litter (a discarded plastic bottle, stranded), by Bo Eide, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Marine litter.

Team Leaders

  • Meagan Dunphy-Daly, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • William Eward, School of Medicine-Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Thomas Schultz, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Jason Somarelli, School of Medicine-Medicine: Medical Oncology

/graduate Team Members

  • Greg Merrill, Ecology-PHD
  • Margaret Morrison, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Rita Glazer, Computer Science (AB)
  • Ella Gunady, Biomedical Engineering (BSE), Biology (BS2)
  • Alexander Hong
  • Jasmine Santos
  • Beatrice Schleupner, Biology (BS)
  • Serafina Turner, Computer Science (BS)
  • Sophie Vincoff, Biomedical Engineering (BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Newland Zhang, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Hailey Brighton, School of Medicine-Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Sarah Plumlee, School of Medicine-Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Andrew Read, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Durham Public Schools, City of Medicine Academy
  • North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
  • East Durham Children's Initiative
  • Environmental Science Summer Program
  • Duke University Marine Lab
  • Dolphin Quest
  • Nicholas Institute for Enviornmental Policy Solutions
  • RTI International