Bacteria that consumes flesh can travel on seaweed as well as plastic.

Fears of flesh-eating germs invading beaches in Florida, the Caribbean, and other parts of the Gulf of Mexico have been fuelled by a new study. Until now, experts are not concerned.

Concerns regarding the risks to people if they show up on beaches are raised by the possibility that disease-causing bacteria, such as the kind that causes flesh-eating illnesses, could inhabit strands of seaweed and plastic debris in the water. But according to experts, you don’t need to postpone your beach holiday just yet.

More than 100 species of Vibrio bacteria, which includes about a dozen that can make people sick, were examined in a recent study that was published last month in the journal Water Research. The Vibrio bacteria were discovered on plastic debris from the ocean and enormous blooms of sargassum seaweed in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Fears about flesh-eating bacteria spreading to beaches in Florida, the Caribbean, and other parts of the Gulf of Mexico where dense mats of sargassum ended up washing onshore were fuelled by the findings. According to Linda Amaral-Zettler, a marine microbiology  expert at the Royal Institute of the Netherlands for Sea Research along with one of the study’s authors, not all Vibrio bacteria are pathogens, despite the fact that they may share some genetic components.

She argued that not everybody needed to flee from sargassum like it was going to kill them. “That’s just not true at all. But I believe that we should consider the hazards seriously.

Vibrio species can spread to people through open wounds, eating undercooked or raw shellfish, or both. Vibrio vulnificus, the most hazardous species, causes flesh-eating disease, but these infections are considered rare.

Infections brought on by Vibrio vulnificus along the eastern coast of the United States could rise significantly in the coming decades as climate change and more warm surface temperatures of the sea enable the flesh-eating bacterium to thrive in waters farther north than ever before, according to a separate study that was published in March in the journal Scientific Reports. Sea surface temperatures are near record highs and could continue to rise, prompting scientists to sound the alarm about a protracted global heat wave.

Both studies emphasize the complex interactions between people, microorganisms, and marine ecosystems as well as the potential for public health concerns that could rise in response to changes in the marine ecosystem.

This year, massive sargassum mounds have already caused problems in South Florida and areas of Mexico. As they wash up and decompose on beaches, the dense mats of algae can ruin coral habitats and worsen the quality of the water and air.

All of these factors, according to Amaral-Zettler, “are very significant and could influence the way we ultimately assess whether our shores are safer in the future.”

While the frequency of fatal Vibrio infections is currently very low, cases will probably rise as an outcome of climate change, according to Rachel Diner, a specialist in marine biology expert wasn’t associated with either of the new research. At the University of California, San Diego, Diner conducted postdoctoral research on the topic of how environmental changes affect coastal bacteria.

According to her, Vibrio infections and Vibrio concentrations have both grown over the past decade or so because Vibrios like warm water conditions. It’s realistic to anticipate that there will be an increase in illnesses and these pathogenic species in the future.

Diner, who will start as an assistant professor in the University of Memphis’ Department of Biological Sciences later this summer, said it’s not entirely unexpected to find Vibrio bacteria traveling with ocean plastic waste and seaweed blooms.

She said, “They do adhere to things and thrive on various surfaces. “That’s quite an active research area right now,” the researcher said, “but it’s not entirely understood how prevalent that is or how dangerous that is.”

The discoveries serve as a reminder to Amaral-Zettler of just how much human activity has changed the aquatic environment, even in isolated locations far from land.

She described seeing enormous rafts of sargassum in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean when in the midst of nowhere. It’s difficult to see that in the heart of what we believe to be a clean ocean, we have a footprint that is evident.

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