PEMBROKE PINES, FL. – In March, a Florida International University professor of coastal sciences told Local 10 News this summer could see the biggest bloom of mounds of thick, brown, tangled kelp, also known as sargassum, on southern beaches. from Florida.
Stephen Leatherman, Ph.D. Surely the algae washed away in previous years is nothing compared to what we will see this summer.
NASA scientists also predict this year’s Sargassum kelp bloom along the Caribbean and eastern Florida coasts will be the largest ever recorded, with the bulk arriving in June and July.
But now, the unsightly and smelly mass bloom can also be deadly. A new study involving researchers from Florida Atlantic University found that plastic marine debris when combined with Sargassum, which is a living population of brown macroalgae, can fill with vibrio vulnificus, sometimes called flesh-eating bacteria. The interaction of sargassum and plastic debris is a breeding ground for a perfect “pathogenic” storm, the researchers said.
“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., corresponding lead author of the study and an assistant professor of biology at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in the FAU and Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, he told Science Daily. “Our laboratory work showed that these vibrio they are extremely aggressive and can seek out and adhere to plastic in a matter of minutes. We also found that there are attachment factors that microbes use to stick to plastics, and it’s the same type of mechanism that pathogens use.”
About a dozen species of bacteria of the genus vibrio cause vibriosis, an illness that can occur when people ingest the bacteria or when the microbes infect an open wound. When eaten, the bacteria can cause severe diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, and vomiting. With regard to wound infections, a kind of vibrio can sometimes cause carnivorous infectionsScientifically known as necrotizing fasciitis, it quickly kills the skin around the infected wound.
The genomics study found that Vibrio pathogens had the ability to adhere to microplastics. It was published in the journal “Water Research,” but Mincer said there is still a lot of research to be done.
“I don’t think at this point anyone has really considered these microbes and their ability to cause infections,” Mincer told Science Daily. “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.”
Just to be safe, anyone diving into the ocean or walking in and around the bulky Sargassum should take precautions. The CDC recommends precautions for flesh-eating bacteria:
Stay out of the water if you have a wound (including from recent surgery, a piercing, or a tattoo), or cover the wound with a waterproof bandage if there is a chance you might come into contact with salt water.
Wash wounds and cuts well with soap and water if they have been exposed to seawater.
If you develop a skin infection, contact a medical professional and tell them if your skin has been in contact with salt water.
Mincer also explained that the research team discovered a set of genes called “zot” genes, which was first discovered in the bacterium. Vibrio cholerae, which can cause cholera and is generally rare in the United States and other industrialized nations. But the discovery of these “zot” genes, which cause leaky gut syndrome, are also found when plastic and sargassum mass interact.
“For example, if a fish eats a piece of plastic and becomes infected with this Vibrio, which then causes leaky gut and diarrhea, it will release waste nutrients like nitrogen and phosphate that could stimulate the growth of sargassum and other surrounding organisms.” Mercer said.
The end result of the study shows that with increased interaction with humans, sargassum, and plastic debris, opportunities are created for pathogens to thrive. The journal study said the data showed that the stranded sargassum “appears to harbor large amounts of vibrio bacteria.”
Experts say there was a huge kelp surge in 2014, 2019, and now prepare for the 2023 sargassum bloom to be the largest ever recorded.
Many municipalities in South Florida have cleanup crews that clean the seaweed from the beaches each morning.
(See study below)
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