Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2020-2021)


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 multiple 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 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 bioaccumulation of plastics.

To address this need, 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.

Project Description

The project team’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. The team will use adaptive selection to identify high-efficiency plastic-degrading enzymes, identify additional plastic-degrading enzymes and test if plastic acts as a carrier for environmental toxins. This work will create a new way to protect oceans and conserve biodiversity.

Using the mutant library devised by last year’s team, the 2020-2021 team will evaluate which PETase mutants are most efficient at degrading plastics by testing their behavior in E. coli cultures. Additionally, the team will search bacterial, fungal, archaeal and insect genomes for sequences similar to PETase, MHETase and other cutinases. Team members will analyze these gene sequences to define functional domains and identify phylogenetically ancestral relationships between these genes. The team will also test if plastics induce cancer-like phenotypes in human and other mammalian cells by carrying carcinogenic compounds and quantify differences in these phenotypes.

Anticipated Outputs

Two peer-reviewed manuscripts; preliminary data for external funding applications


Fall 2020 – Summer 2021

  • Fall 2020: New team members work in partnership with current team members to familiarize themselves with project; all team members attend weekly lab meetings, monthly team meetings and monthly journal clubs
  • Spring 2021: Continue work on research
  • Summer 2021 (optional): Continue work on research; participate in community outreach activities; complete collaborative writing, reviewing and submission for publication

Team Outputs to Date

A Dangerous Taste for Plastic in the Ocean Depths (by Zoie Diana)

This Team in the News

Two Faculty Receive Inaugural Bass Connections Leadership Award

See related teams, Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2021-2022) and Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2019-2020).


Image: Plastic pollution covering Accra beach, by Muntaka Chasant, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Trash on beach.

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

  • Niki Clearly, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Kimberly Corcoran, Master of Environmental Management, Coastal Environmental Management
  • Zoie Diana, Marine Sci & Conservation-PHD
  • Margaret Morrison, Master of Environmental Management

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Sarah Kwartler, Biology (BS)
  • Chloe Meyers
  • Beatrice Schleupner, Biology (BS)
  • Serafina Turner, Computer Science (BS)
  • Sophie Vincoff
  • Zachary Weishampel, Biology (BS)
  • Justin Yang, Chemistry (BS)
  • Newland Zhang

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Hailey Brighton, School of Medicine-Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Xia Meng Howey, School of Medicine-Medicine: Medical Oncology
  • Andrew Read, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Stephen Roady, Duke Law

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Durham Public Schools, City of Medicine Academy
  • North Carolina School of Science and Math
  • STEM in the Park
  • East Durham Children's Initiative
  • Duke University Marine Lab
  • Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
  • Seaworld
  • Busch Gardens Conservation Fund
  • North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
  • Environmental Science Summer Program