Owen Pluorde was passing through his living room when he heard an acronym on the TV that sounded like something you’d find in a kitchen: CRISPR.
Short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, CRISPR was discovered in bacteria and only recently adapted as a precise and effective gene-editing technology. As it can be used on nearly anything with a genome, the applications are wide-ranging, from human disease to GMOs.
But Pluorde, 13, had one problem in mind when he first learned about CRISPR gene-editing, and that was plastic pollution. With Raphaela De Marchi Padovani, 14, the two Texans devised a method of creating “biocyclers,” which would contain a species of bacterium genetically engineered to metabolize plastic into greener materials.
“The goal with our project is to prevent plastic from ever reaching the ocean,” Owen Plourde tells Inverse. “That’s what I think is really genius about this approach.”
The pair recently took first place in the 2020 national Toshiba/NSTA ExploraVision competition for the idea, moving it one step closer to a reality. With the validation and encouragement from the award, De Marchi says she hopes to experiment with bacteria and CRISPR kits in the lab spaces she’ll have access to as a high school freshman.
Inverse spoke to Plourde and De Marchi about plastic pollution, gene editing, and Grey’s Anatomy.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What were your first experiences with science?
RDM: In fourth grade, we dissected owl pellets, and that was the first time we got to experience science hands-on. I found a mouse skull in mine.
OP: A big part of science is taking things apart. Being able to take something apart and learn about it was a really cool way to get into science.
What were your first breakthroughs in science?
OP: In sixth grade, I did another ExploraVision project where we developed roof tiles that would be able to photosynthesize and develop oxygen for the environment. At the time, we were doing research into how CO2 is naturally absorbed into the environment. And algae came up, and we saw this species that is really effective at absorbing CO2. A breakthrough came when we were thinking of different ways we could implement that without taking up space, and we realized we could use roof tiles.
RDM: My first breakthrough was when I was in sixth grade. My science teacher, Ms. Caldwell, introduced me to NASA and assigned our class a project on different spacecraft and missions. I think that was a big part of why I’ve wanted to get into science, because at first I wanted to be an astronaut. It’s still a dream of mine, but I’ve gone from wanting to be an astronaut to wanting to be communications at mission control. That’s because I talk a lot, and because one time we went on a field trip to the Houston Space Center and did a simulation where we were a crew in a spaceship. I was assigned communications, and it was fun being the leader of the pack.
What was your first failure in science?
OP: For me, it was my first science fair project in sixth grade. I did a project studying how different variables affect solar cells and how much energy they produce. I originally wanted to have a panel that was able to rotate automatically to test if direct sun exposure would affect how much energy a panel would produce. But I wasn’t able to obtain the technology to do that, which was saddening and maddening.
What’s the origin story of your innovation?
RDM: We didn’t know each other in elementary school, but I’d seen him at the science fair. So on the first day of school this year, I walked into orchestra class and Owen is there, and I’m like, “Wait a minute. I know that kid.” He didn’t really like me that much in the beginning. But then we realized we had a common interest in science and now we’re best friends.
“Now we have to do something about [plastic pollution], because it’s going to be our world.”
OP: That’s not true. I liked her a lot from the beginning. She wasn’t annoying at all. Last year, when we were brainstorming, we did a lot of research on lots of different topics, one of them being plastic pollution. We stumbled upon this article detailing a species of bacteria that was able to eat plastic and use it as energy, and we both found that very intriguing. So we did more research into it and found out that its genome had been sequenced, so we could genetically modify something with it.
Why is plastic pollution so important to you?
RDM: According to National Geographic, there’s about 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean now, and that number is only going to double by 2050. People don’t really care that much, though. They’re just like, “Oh, yeah, I’m going to clean up the beach.” Animals keep dying because they don’t know how to distinguish food from plastic. Something that not a lot of people know is that since animals like tuna eat plastic, a piece of tuna that you’d buy to eat would have microplastics in it.
OP: To be pretty blunt, it’s enraging. Adults have known about this, and now we have to do something about it, because it’s going to be our world.
What’s new about your innovation?
OP: The goal with our project is to prevent plastic from ever reaching the ocean. That’s what I think is really genius about this approach. This bacterium is not only eating plastic away, but it’s also providing a green source of energy for people to use, which in turn reduces CO2 emissions across the planet, reducing the effects of climate change.
RDM: You know how we have those green and yellow bins that we put trash in outside our driveways? What we came up with is something a little different, called a biocycler. So you would put the trash and the plastic in there, and it would eat up that plastic and make it into electricity for your home.
Even though the competition was just to come up with an idea, I’d like to see it come true, because this is a real-world problem that we have a solution for. I’m very surprised that people haven’t thought about this yet, since scientists have known about C. reinhardtii for a couple years.
OP: This competition is just a kickstart that lets you brainstorm to make something happen. So I think now we’re obligated to make this a reality. I know Rafaela is interested in making this her science fair project next year because she’ll have access to high school labs.
How did you hear about CRISPR Cas-9 gene-editing?
OP: My mom will sometimes watch these documentaries, and I was just walking through the living room, and she had on a documentary talking about CRISPR Cas-9. I sat down and watched it, and that was my first exposure to what it was. Then when we were researching for this competition, it took lots of serious reading and these college-level papers to fully understand it and implement it into our idea. It’s really a genius approach to genetic modification.
RDM: You can buy CRISPR kits online, so I think it’s something that I’ll be able to do in a high school lab.
What’s been the most meaningful fan mail you’ve received?
RDM: Someone in our community sent us this really sweet email saying that we’re the new innovators and we put hope in our community. Where we live, there’s a very small community of us that like science and are very into it like me and Owen, so I was really touched by that email.