A giant stretch of kelp crawling across the Atlantic Ocean towards Florida may contain deadly flesh-eating bacteria, a new study has found. The 5,000-mile-wide kelp clump is made up of sargassum algae, which have massively bloomed to form the “Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt.” news week informed. This year’s sargassum bloom has been on its way to growing to the largest it has ever been.
The Florida Atlantic University study shows how seaweed interacts with plastic debris found in the ocean and Vibrio species of bacteria, creating “the perfect ‘pathogenic’ storm.” This could affect both marine life and public health.
“Plastic is a new element that has been introduced to marine environments and has only been around for about 50 years,” Tracy Mincer, Ph.D., one of the study authors and an assistant professor of biology at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute of the FAU. she said in an FAU press release.
“Our lab work showed that these Vibrio are extremely aggressive and can seek out and adhere to plastic in a matter of minutes. We also found that there are binding factors that microbes use to stick to plastics, and it’s the same kind of mechanism that pathogens use.”
He said the kelp belt stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the African coast provided the perfect breeding ground for “omnivorous” strains of the bacterium that target both plant and animal life.
Vibrio bacteria can cause brutal infections and even necrotizing fasciitis, leading to the bacteria being nicknamed “flesh-eaters.” Vibrio can infect by eating contaminated shellfish or through an open wound in someone’s flesh, usually from seawater, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In an interview with local television station WEAR, Mincer said the threat from vibrio bacteria increases after the slick washes up on shore and dries up.
”If you handle this algae, it’s a good idea to wash your hands,” he said, ”and if you’re going to do it a lot, wear gloves, and if you have an open cut or something, stay away from it.”
“We really want the public to be aware of these associated risks. In particular, caution should be exercised regarding the harvesting and processing of sargassum biomass until the risks are further explored,” Mr Mincer added.
The Florida Department of Health advised residents and visitors to avoid sargassum and warned that vibrio vulnificus the infections “can be serious for people who have weakened immune systems, such as those with chronic liver disease,” the Guardian reported.