A giant blob of seaweed headed for the Florida coastline might contain deadly flesh-eating bacteria, according to a study from Florida Atlantic University.
Published in the journal "Water Research," the study found that the 5,000-mile wide clump contains sargassum seaweed and floating plastic, which can become covered in species of Vibrio bacteria.
Beached sargassum seaweed contains high levels of the bacteria, which can attach to marine plastic debris that collects in large amounts within the seaweed mass, researchers found.
Vibrio bacteria, especially the Vibrio vulnificus species, can cause serious infections and necrotizing, or flesh-eating, fasciitis. Infection can occur when an open wound is exposed to the bacteria via saltwater or by eating contaminated seafood, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The skin around infected wounds may rot and die in cases of necrotizing fasciitis.
According to the CDC, approximately one in five people infected with Vibrio will die, sometimes within a day or two of becoming ill. Only about 0.4 people per 100,000 are infected with the bacteria each year in the U.S.
"I don't think at this point, anyone has really considered these microbes and their capability to cause infections," Tracy Mincer, lead author of the Water Research paper and assistant professor of biology at FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, told Newsweek in a statement.
"We really want to make the public aware of these associated risks. In particular, caution should be exercised regarding the harvest and processing of Sargassum biomass until the risks are explored more thoroughly."
Researchers at the University of South Florida's Optical Oceanography Lab determined that in March and April, the seaweed blob threatening Florida contained about 13 million tons of sargassum, a record amount for that time of year.
The FAU study found that the Vibrio bacteria may actually encourage the growth of the seaweed blob.
"Another interesting thing we discovered is a set of genes called 'zot' genes, which causes leaky gut syndrome," Mincer said. "For instance, if a fish eats a piece of plastic and gets infected by this Vibrio, which then results in a leaky gut and diarrhea, it's going to release waste nutrients such nitrogen and phosphate that could stimulate Sargassum growth and other surrounding organisms."
According to Newsweek, the seaweed began washing up on the beaches of Florida and Mexico a few months ago, as well as in the Caribbean islands.
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