Owen Plourde 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 Plourde, 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.
What’s a problem you’d like to solve in your careers?
OP: Plastic pollution.
RDM: Agreed. I would also like to create something that can stop the spread of viruses. So sort of like a shield, where it would automatically clean the air and protect you.
What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever received?
RDM: Don't procrastinate. That is the best piece of advice I've ever been given. Procrastinating — that's a no-go. I'm pretty sure all my teachers have told me that, even though I still sometimes do it. And just relax, because normally we tend to get so wound up in all our schoolwork and testing.
OP: For me, I think it would just be the reassurance that people have given me. When someone says you can actually do this, just believe in yourself; it's been very helpful for me. It can be very daunting at first, but being able to help people and the world and pursue science at a very young age has been amazing.
What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
OP: We both play in orchestra. I play the cello and Raphaela plays the violin.
RDM: I think that helps us with science, since music uses both sides of our brains.
OP: Music is so mathematical. It's very on the beat, like, you have to be exact. And even though there's a tiny bit of art, it's also very science-y and math-y.
How do you unwind?
RDM: We don't really have a lot of free time during the school year, so quarantine has been really great. Owen and I have been going on a lot of bike rides lately, six feet apart and wearing masks. Watching TV, listening to music, and hanging out with Owen are the ways I relax.
OP: Raphaela and I both avidly watch Grey's Anatomy, all 16 seasons, and we watch a lot of TikTok, too.
What do you like about Grey’s Anatomy?
RDM: I feel like I've learned so much from Grey's Anatomy. I know all the procedures that they've mentioned, and Owen and I can definitely relate to Meredith and Cristina, since we have that bond. I also like all the drama, even though it's not such an age-appropriate show.
What’s next for you?
RDM: I'm going to a science and technology academy for high school next year, and I'm really excited about being in an environment with so many people that have the same passions as I do.
“We can make an impact if we scream loud enough.”
OP: Our school district is allowing you to choose online or in-person school upfront, so I'm going to be doing the online version. I'm looking forward to the freedom of having my own schedule and being able to work on different science projects between classes.
What’s a prediction you have for 2030?
RDM: I think that the technology advancements that we see in movies maybe will come true, like flying cars, but I also hope that people aren't so attached to technology. When we're in school, we're not allowed to use our cell phones and so we can detach from them. But in this period, we have been glued to our screens 24/7. I hope by 2030 that people aren't so connected to technology, but they've learned to live alongside it.
Who would you want to play you in the movie of your innovation?
OP: Tom Holland or Noah Schnapp.
RDM: Because of Grey’s Anatomy, Ellen Pompeo.
OP: Wait, then Patrick Dempsey.
Who’s a scientist you want to shout out?
OP: Bill Nye for sure. Both of us really appreciate him, and him sticking with the ExploraVision program for almost 30 years is pretty amazing.
RDM: We grew up watching Bill Nye in our science classrooms and yelling, “Bill, Bill, Bill!” He's taught us so much, and he's been there every step of the way since we were little. He’s also a great creator on TikTok. I love his videos.
OP: I would say to other kids, if they are interested in STEM, look into their school's science fair program or maybe even a competition like ExploraVision. If you put the work in, you can make a change, you can innovate, and you can affect the world for the better. Especially since we — as people younger than 18 — can’t vote, this is one of the only ways that our voices can be heard, so I am extremely grateful for this competition, and I hope that anyone else around our age wanting their voice to be heard to participate in ExploraVision.
RDM: What I think I would tell them is that they can have a voice, because normally we're not heard. But we can make an impact if we scream loud enough. If you put your mind to it, and don’t procrastinate, you can achieve that.
OP: Especially since we, as people younger than 18, can’t vote, this is one of the only ways that our voice can be heard, so I am extremely grateful for this competition and I hope that anyone else around our age wanting their voice to be heard participates in ExploraVision.
The Inverse Young Innovators series has stories you won’t get anywhere else about the STEM leaders of tomorrow who are making an impact today.