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.

Building on the work of previous teams, the 2022-2023 team worked to 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 identify the most efficient PETase mutants from the existing library and selected E. coli capable of rapidly degrading plastic. They also tested the plastic degrading capabilities of P. stutzeri using plate clearing assays, terephthalic acid fluorescence assays and scanning electron microscopy. 

Finally, the team also examined the carcinogenicity of more than 2,500 plastic additives using toxicogenomic analysis. 


Summer 2022 – Summer 2023

Team Outputs

Discovering Plastic-Degrading Bacterial Species (2023 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Virtual Showcase)

Plastic pollution: Understanding Threats to Human Health and Bioremediation Strategies (Poster by Laney Chang, Rita Glazer, Ella Gunady, Sage Hirschfeld, Alexander Hong, Jas Santos, Sophie Vincoff, Jenny Yoon, Jason Somarelli, William Eward, Beatrice Schleupner, Serafina Turner, Zack Weishampel, Newland Zhang, Zoie Diana, Margaret Morrison, Hailey Brighton, Sarah Plumlee, Thomas Schultz, Andrew Read, Meagan Dunphy-Daly, presented at 2023 Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase, April 19, 2023)

What We Know and What We Don’t: Investigating the Carcinogenic Potential and Gene Expression Patterns of Plastic Additives (Poster by Sophia Vincoff, Jasmine Santos, Beatrice Schleupner, Margaret Morrison, Newland Zhang, Thomas F. Schultz, Meagan M. Dunphy-Daly, William Eward, Andrew Armstrong, Zoie Diana, Jason Somarelli)

This Team in the News

Meet the Winners of the 2023 Bass Connections Student Research Awards

Senior Spotlight: Reflections from the Class of 2023

See related teams, Bioremediation of Plastic Pollution to Conserve Marine Biodiversity (2023-2024) and 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
  • William Eward, School of Medicine-Orthopaedic Surgery
  • Beatrice Schleupner, 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
  • Zoie Diana, Marine Sci & Conservation-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Newland Zhang, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Melanie Chang, Environmental Engineering(BSE)
  • Seojin Yoon, Biology (BS)
  • Sophie Vincoff, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Justin Smith, Economics (AB)
  • Jasmine Santos, DKU Interdisciplinary Studies (BS)
  • Alexander Hong, Interdepartmental Major
  • Sage Hirschfeld, Environmental Engineering(BSE)
  • Claire Helgerson, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Ella Gunady, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)
  • Rita Glazer, Computer Science (AB)

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Henry David Thoreau Foundation
  • Conservation X Labs
  • Seaworld
  • Dolphin Quest
  • RTI International
  • Environmental Science Summer Program
  • East Durham Children's Initiative
  • STEM in the Park
  • North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
  • Durham Public Schools, City of Medicine Academy