A massive swath of seaweed that made headlines for its disruptive 5,000-mile-length may be littered with flesh-eating bacteria, according to a Florida Atlantic University study published in the "Water Research" journal.
The giant blob, composed of Sargassum seaweed, is heading toward Florida.
Researchers found that plastic materials encompassed within the Sargassum could be harboring a potentially dangerous bacteria known as Vibrio — creating a "perfect pathogen storm."
"Vibrio bacteria are found in waters around the world and are the dominant cause of death in humans from the marine environment," said a statement by FAU.
The problem is not with the seaweed itself, but the plastics wrapped up in it. Researchers found that vibrio pathogens displayed the ability to latch onto microplastics, suggesting the microbes may be adapting to plastics.
Researchers also discovered zonula occludens toxin or "zot" genes, which is a toxin secreted by Vibrio, and causes leaky gut syndrome.
"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 as nitrogen and phosphate that could stimulate Sargassum growth and other surrounding organisms," said Tracy Mincer, corresponding lead author and an assistant professor of biology at FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, in a statement.
Results from the study indicate Vibrio targets both plant and animal hosts, and can survive in environments with little nutrients.
"I don't think at this point, anyone has really considered these microbes and their capability to cause infections," Mincer said. "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."
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