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. 

Team Outputs to Date

Margaret Morrison, Rafael Trevisan, Prabha Ranasinghe, Greg B. Merrill, Jasmine Santos, Alexander Hong, William C. Edward, Nishad Jayasundara, Jason A. Somarelli. "A Growing Crisis for One Health: Impacts of Plastic Pollution Across Layers of Biological Function." 2022. Frontiers in Marine Science vol. 9.


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

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
  • 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

  • Zoie Diana, Marine Sci & Conservation-PHD
  • Greg Merrill, Ecology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Melanie Chang
  • Rita Glazer, Computer Science (AB)
  • Ella Gunady, Biomedical Engineering (BSE), Biology (BS2)
  • Claire Helgerson
  • Sage Hirschfeld
  • Alex Hong, Biology (BS)
  • Jasmine Santos
  • Justin Smith
  • Sophie Vincoff, Biomedical Engineering (BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Seojin Yoon
  • Newland Zhang, Biomedical Engineering (BSE)

/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