Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2019-2020)


By 2025, it is estimated that over 2.2 billion tons of plastics will be thrown away each year. Sadly, much of this plastic ends up in our waterways, including in enormous piles scattered throughout our oceans.

Ingestion of these 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.

Despite the staggering volume of plastic 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 plastics bioaccumulation.

One such strategy involves using microorganisms to convert plastic waste into biodegradable products, such as through a recently identified bacterium that uses two enzymes to degrade plastic. These enzymes represent powerful new tools for bioremediation efforts.

Project Description

The primary goal of this Bass Connections project 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.

The project team’s research focus will be to test and optimize a new system for plastic bioremediation that uses bioengineered laboratory strains of E. coli to express the two plastic-degrading enzymes PETase and MHETase. Using this strain, the team will test if the new E. coli-based system can degrade plastic and then work on optimizing this new system to enhance plastic bioremediation.

To test the strain, team members will use a fluorescence assay and electron microscopy to quantify products of plastic degradation. To optimize plastic bioremediation, the team will create and test a diverse library of PETase and MHETase mutants and select those which can most effectively degrade plastic and use it as a carbon source.

In the long term, this research will help inform work to engineer a solar-powered portable bioreactor that can be deployed to areas in need of plastic remediation and removal. This project will therefore have the positive societal benefit of creating a new way to protect our oceans.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed manuscript for publication; preliminary data to back proposals for extramural funding


Fall 2019 – Summer 2020

  • Fall 2019: Graduate and medical students begin conducting initial background research
  • Spring 2020: Undergraduate team members begin team orientation; begin weekly lab meetings, monthly team meetings and monthly journal clubs; begin outreach experiences; begin weekly experimental design discussion meetings led by project managers
  • Summer 2020: Undergraduate team members continue research; begin collaboratively writing, reviewing and submitting work for publication; begin preparing data for future grant proposals

Team Outputs to Date

Protecting Oceans by Putting Plastic Waste to Use (Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase 2020)

Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (video)

This Team in the News

Confronting the Plastic Pandemic to Restore Environmental Health and Biodiversity

Doctoral Students Honored for Commitment to Outstanding Mentorship

Meet the Winners of the 2020 Bass Connections Student Research Awards

See related team, Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2020-2021).


Image: Smithsonian’s National Zoo presents “Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea,” by Adam Mason/Smithsonian’s National Zoo, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Smithsonian’s National Zoo presents “Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea."

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

  • Zoie Diana, Marine Sci & Conservation-PHD
  • Yiwei Duan, Civil & Environmental Engg-MS
  • Laura Givens, Marine Sci & Conservation-PHD
  • Emily Melvin, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Ella Gunady, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Sarah Kwartler, Biology (BS)
  • Beatrice Schleupner
  • Emma Schmaltz, Environmental Sciences (BS)
  • Serafina Turner
  • Sophie Vincoff
  • Megan Wang
  • Zachary Weishampel, Biology (BS)
  • Justin Yang
  • Newland Zhang

/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
  • Kathryn Ware, School of Medicine-Molecular Genetics and Microbiology

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Durham Public Schools, City of Medicine Academy
  • North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
  • STEM in the Park
  • East Durham Children's Initiative