Highlights: Our Planet

Rainforest Ecosystems

Tropical rainforests are being destroyed at a rapid rate. A team has been participating in the Rainforest XPRIZE competition to develop technologies to catalogue the astounding biodiversity in the near-impenetrable regions of the world’s rainforests. These “Blue Devil Forest Divers” designed and built heavy-lift drones that can fly deep into the rainforest to collect genetic samples of plant and insects.

A professor and students gather around a table to look at the drone they are developing.
The team confers over their design. (Photo: Jared Lazarus)

The Bass Connections team organized an iNaturalist event to test their device and engage the community in the documentation and identification of local biodiversity in Durham. Next, team members refined their technology and tested their drones in enclosures at Duke’s Lemur Center.

Traveling to La Selva Biological Reserve and Research Station in Costa Rica, the team tested its drones and collection techniques. The data will help refine the prototype to better navigate the forest and more quickly identify and catalogue a diverse range of species.

Female student walking through rainforest wearing backpack and carrying clipboard.
A student researcher walks in the rainforest. (Photo: Alex Yu, courtesy of Pratt School of Engineering)

The team was selected as one of 15 semifinalists for the Rainforest XPRIZE, where they will compete for a $10 million award.


Plastic Pollution

A team tackled the problem of plastic waste by examining the impacts of plastic additives on human health and developing a highly efficient strain of plastic-degrading bacteria in the lab.

Team members catalogued over 2,700 chemicals found in plastics, discovering that only 10% have been tested for toxicity in humans. The team identified and tested additional additives for their carcinogenic potential.

Diagram showing that among 2400 untested chemicals, 90% are still untested, 6% are cancerous, 4% are not cancerous.
The team identified 2,400 chemicals found in plastics that have not been tested for toxicity in humans. (Image: From the team’s presentation at the Fortin Foundation Bass Connections Showcase)

The team also identified the genetic structures of enzymes in naturally occurring plastic degrading microorganisms, and used this information to identify and test additional microbes for their plastic degrading potential.

A more efficient plastic degrading microbe, or “super degrader,” has the potential to be used in solar powered bioreactors to convert plastic waste to recyclable byproducts on a large scale.


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Mercury in the Amazon

In the Peruvian Amazon, millions of small mining operations use mercury to extract gold from ore, generating emissions and waste that pollute the surrounding air and water.

Man squatting on ground holding testing device and surrounded by bottles and a bucket.
Axel Berky takes a water sample to measure the presence of heavy metals from a natural spring in Puerto Luz, Peru. (Photo: Courtesy of Duke Global Health Institute)

Building on previous work, this team initiated a community-building effort to invite deeper collaboration among the research and policy communities. Team members implemented an environmental sampling technology and evaluated the effect of mercury and lead exposure on children’s cognitive development and adults’ cardiovascular disease risk. They also investigated the use of biomarkers to identify high mercury exposure, and analyzed market and policy solutions to gold mining pollution.

Woman sitting next to a child and pointing out a lesson, seated at a table.
Helena Frischtak, M.D., conducts a cognitive assessment test. (Photo: From team poster)

This work has shaped the academic and career pathways of many students, including Ph.D. graduates Axel Berky (Environment) who collects and measures materials found on contaminated sites for Geosyntec Consultants, Jackie Gerson (Ecology) who is continuing this work as a postdoctoral researcher, and Sarah Diringer (Civil & Environmental Engineering) who investigates water resource management for the Pisces Foundation.