June 2, 2023 – A 5,000-mile-long seaweed blob heading toward the east coast of Florida contains “flesh-eating” bacteria, researchers from Florida Atlantic University said.
Vibrio bacteria is already known to cause life-threatening illnesses from seafood consumption and disease and death from open wound infections. The new finding from the research team is that the bacteria can also attach itself to plastic debris caught up in the seaweed blob and might spread to people who simply touch the debris.
That creates a perfect “pathogen” storm, FAU researchers said.
“Plastic is a new element that’s been introduced into marine environments and has only been around for about 50 years,” Tracy Mincer, PhD, one of the study authors and an assistant professor of biology at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, said in a news release from FAU.
“Our lab work showed that these Vibrio are extremely aggressive and can seek out and stick to plastic within minutes. We also found that there are attachment factors that microbes use to stick to plastics, and it is the same kind of mechanism that pathogens use.”
Florida residents know about the stench and ugliness of the seaweed blobs from past experience, but the danger of the flesh-eating bacteria is a new twist.
In an interview with local TV station WEAR, Mincer said the threat of the vibrio bacteria increases after the blob reaches the shore and dries.
“If you handle this seaweed, it’s a good idea to wash your hands,” he said, “and if you’re going to be doing a lot of it, wear gloves, and if you have an open cut or something, stay away from it.”
He noted that antibiotics are effective against infection from the seaweed because the vibrio bacteria has not developed resistance.
The study was published in Water Research.