Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2022-2023)


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 have 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. This project’s goal is to leverage these 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 2022-2023 team will optimize the enzymatic degradation system for high-efficiency plastic degradation; validate the plastic-degrading capacity of candidate bacteria that have been identified; and determine the ways in which plastic acts as a carrier for environmental toxins.

Using adaptive selection, team members will identify the most efficient PETase mutants from the existing library, and select E. coli capable of rapidly degrading plastic. They will also test if P. stutzeri can degrade plastic using plate clearing assays, terephthalic acid fluorescence assays and scanning electron microscopy. 

In addition, the team will quantify differences in cancer-like phenotypes using colony formation, anchorage-independent growth and migration/invasion assays. 

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed manuscripts on novel enzyme to degrade plastic and on plastics as carriers for environmental toxins; grant proposals

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will be comprised of 5 graduate students and 10 undergraduate students. Students of any discipline are welcome to apply. Undergraduates with majors spanning biology, engineering, chemistry, computer science, bioinformatics and environmental science may find this project most in line with their interests. Students with expertise in molecular biology, genetic engineering, genomics, bioinformatics and public policy would also be well suited for the team.

Students will gain experience working in a research laboratory with a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and team leaders. Students will learn how to design and conduct experiments, present data at lab meetings and discussion sessions, summarize and critically evaluate journal articles, and write manuscripts and other scientific papers. 

Career development discussions with peer mentors and team leaders will help students develop action plans to achieve future goals. Graduate students and senior trainees can also expect to learn how to serve as project leaders and thus develop their leadership and organization skills as they guide the project team.

Margaret Morrison and Hailey Brighton will serve as project managers.


Summer 2022 – Summer 2023

  • Summer 2022 (optional): New team members complete informational interviews with current team members to select project subteams
  • Fall 2022: Complete foundational research modules; attend weekly lab meetings, monthly team meetings and monthly journal clubs; take part in weekly experimental design discussion meetings
  • Spring 2023: Complete foundational research modules; continue research; begin manuscript writing
  • Summer 2023 (optional): Write, review and submit manuscripts for publication; participate in community outreach activities; attend weekly lab meetings, monthly team meetings and monthly journal clubs


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Bioremediating Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2021-2022).


Image: El plastico mata, by Rasande Tyskar, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Can on a beach.

Team Leaders

  • Meagan Dunphy-Daly, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Jason Somarelli, School of Medicine-Medicine: Medical Oncology

/graduate Team Members

  • Greg Merrill, Ecology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Rita Glazer, Computer Science (AB)
  • Alex Hong, Biology (BS)
  • Jasmine Santos
  • Sophie Vincoff, Biomedical Engineering (BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Newland Zhang, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • William Eward, School of Medicine-Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Andrew Read, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Thomas Schultz, 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
  • STEM in the Park
  • East Durham Children's Initiative
  • Environmental Science Summer Program
  • RTI International
  • Dolphin Quest
  • Seaworld
  • Conservation X Labs
  • Henry David Thoreau Foundation