Ocean Plastic Could Spread Flesh-Eating Bacteria

A pathogen that can infect humans is found living on microplastic particles.

Photo: This catamaran was used to gather microplastic carrying a dangerous pathogen. Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institut/Gunnar Gerdts Vibrio vulnificus, the infamous flesh-eating water-borne bacteria that can enter a person's body through a cut or wound, is pretty nasty stuff, as a Texas fisherman who recently contracted it could attest. Vibrio -- which also can cause severe diarrhea, often accompanied by abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills -- usually hangs out in salt water in warm climates such as the Gulf Coast.

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But now, scientists from Germany's Alfred-Wegener Institute are afraid that with waters in the North and Baltic seas warming due to climate change, the flesh-eating bacteria will migrate northward.

Worse yet, the German researchers have discovered that the dangerous pathogen may be able to hitch a ride for thousands of miles on particles of microplastic. The latter are tiny fragments of plastic refuse that make their way into the world's oceans, where they're a growing environmental menace.

"This illustrates the potential of pathogens hitchhiking on these particles, i.e. disseminating as free loaders within an ecosystem and proliferating beyond," microbiologist Gunnar Gerdts explained in a press release.

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The scientists, who sailed on the research vessel Heincke, gathered water samples from 62 stations in the North and Baltic Seas. In addition, they used a Neuston catamaran to skim off microplastic particles directly below the water's surface for further investigation in the laboratory.

A little more than 10 percent of the microplastic particles they gathered showed signs of Vibrio vulnificus.

The scientists' study was published recently in the journal Marine Environmental Research.

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