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Bacteria

Local shellfish, like oysters and clams, are harvested on the North Shore. File photo

Citing recent bacteriological surveys, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced emergency regulations to change the designation of underwater shellfish lands in Suffolk county. Shellfish harvesting will be closed or limited to particular months in approximately 1,844 acres of bays and harbors in Brookhaven, Huntington, Islip, Smithtown, Riverhead, Southampton, Southold, East Hampton and Oyster Bay, to comply with state and national standards to protect public health.

Through the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, states are required to conduct routine water quality sampling in shellfish harvesting areas. Failure by a state to comply with these national water quality-monitoring protocols could lead to a prohibition of the sale of shellfish products in interstate commerce.

The DEC’s analyses of water quality in these areas showed increased levels of fecal coliform bacteria. The increased bacteria indicates that shellfish harvested from these areas have the potential to cause human illness if consumed.

Bacteria can enter the waters from a variety of human, animal, cesspool and storm water sources. The DEC is working with local governments in Suffolk County on major projects to improve water quality in the region, an effort that will reduce discharges of bacteria and nitrogen. The DEC will work with partners to track down the bacteria sources and oversee mandated local efforts to address illicit discharges of sewage into storm sewer systems, while also continuing to evaluate sources of bacteria in an effort to resolve the issue.

The DEC’s emergency regulations will change the designation of the affected shellfish areas to “uncertified,” or closed, for the harvest of clams, mussels, oysters and scallops, either year-round or seasonally.

In Mount Sinai Harbor in Brookhaven Town, approximately 200 acres will be reclassified as closed for the harvest of shellfish during the period May 1 to Oct. 31.

In Stony Brook Harbor, approximately 300 acres shall be reclassified as closed from May 15 through Oct. 31, to closed instead from May 1 through Dec. 31, for the harvest of shellfish.

In Cold Spring Harbor, approximately 99 acres shall be designated as closed during from May 1 through Oct. 15, for the harvest of shellfish.

For more information about shellfish safety and New York’s role in the National Shellfish Sanitation Program, visit the DEC’s website. The emergency regulations adopting the changes are effective immediately. Additional information may also be obtained by contacting the DEC’s Shellfisheries office at (631) 444-0492.

Young bathers dive into the waters of a newly reopened beach at the Centerport Yacht Club. Photo by Rohma Abbas

The county health department warned locals on Friday against bathing at 25 Huntington area beaches, the morning after heavy rainfall drenched the North Shore.

According to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, it issued the advisory because the rain could have led to bacteria levels in the water that exceed state standards.

“The beaches covered by the advisory are located in areas that are heavily influenced by stormwater runoff from the surrounding watersheds and/or adjacent tributaries,” the department said in a press release, “and, because of their location in an enclosed embayment, experience limited tidal flushing.”

Affected beaches include Eagle Dock Community Beach, Cold Spring Harbor Beach Club beach, West Neck Beach, Lloyd Neck Bath Club beach, Lloyd Harbor Village Park beach, Gold Star Battalion Park beach, Head of the Bay Club beach, Nathan Hale Beach Club beach, Baycrest Association beach, Bay Hills Beach Association beach, Crescent Beach, Knollwood Beach Association beach, Fleets Cove Beach, Centerport Beach, Huntington Beach Community Association beach, Centerport Yacht Club beach, Steers Beach, Asharoken Beach, Hobart Beach (both the Long Island Sound and cove sides), Crab Meadow Beach, Wincoma Association beach, Valley Grove Beach, Prices Bend Beach and Callahans Beach.

The advisory was scheduled to be lifted at 9 p.m. on Friday, to give enough time for two tidal cycles to clear out the water. However, the health department said the advisory would not be lifted if water samples from the affected beaches showed continued high levels of bacteria.

For up-to-date information on the affected beaches, call the health department’s bathing beach hotline at 631-852-5822 or visit the beach monitoring webpage.

Photo from the health department

Blue-green algae has made some waters in Suffolk County unsafe for residents, according to the county health department.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation reported recently that in seven nearby bodies of water, levels of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, have exceeded health criteria, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.

While cyanobacteria appear naturally in lakes and streams in low levels, the department said, they can become abundant and form blooms that are green, blue-green, yellow, brown or red in color. The algae can appear in “floating scums on the surface of the water, or may cause the water to take on [a] paint-like appearance.” Contact with those scummy or discolored waters should be avoided.

Currently affected waters include parts of Lake Ronkonkoma; Old Town Pond, Agawam Lake and Mill Pond in Southampton; Maratooka Lake in Mattituck; Kellis Pond in Bridgehampton; and Wainscott Pond in Wainscott.

Lake Ronkonkoma Beach has already been closed to bathing for more than a week, a health department official said on Monday, because test results showed high levels of a different bacteria — E. coli, caused by fowl droppings.

The levels of cyanobacteria and “associated toxins” are particularly high at Agawam Lake, the health department said in a recent press release, so residents should avoid direct exposure to water there.

At all of the affected locations, the health department said, residents should not use the water, and should not swim or wade in it. Officials also advised residents to keep both children and pets away from the areas.

If people or pets come in contact with the affected water, health officials said, they should be rinsed off immediately with clean water. If the affected person experiences symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, allergic reactions, breathing difficulties or irritation in the skin, eyes or throat, he should seek medical attention.

More information about cyanobacteria is available on the county health department’s website.

To report a cyanobacteria bloom at a county beach where bathing is permitted, call the Suffolk County Department of Health Services’ Office of Ecology at 631-852-5760. To report one at a body of water in Suffolk County without a bathing beach, call the Division of Water at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation at 518-402-8179.

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From left, Isaac Carrico with Cannon, 5, and Elizabeth Boon with Sheridan, 16 months, at a beach in North Carolina. Photo by Jim Hinckley

When bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, they enter a category that spurs scientists and doctors to search for alternative remedies.

Bacteria can live singly, in what’s called the planktonic state, in groups or colonies, in which case they form a biofilm, or in numerous possibilities in between. In the biofilm state, they become more resistant to antibiotics, which increases the urgency to find a way to break up the bacterial party.

Elizabeth Boon, an associate professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University, has worked with a gas that, in some species of bacteria, appears to affect biofilm formation. While the details vary from one species to another, scientists have found that low concentrations of nitric oxide most often cause bacteria to leave biofilms.

Boon has discovered nitric oxide-sensing proteins in several strains of bacteria, which might help shed light on how this gas acts as a trigger for bacteria.

Boon’s discoveries are “innovative because they provide a previously important missing link between how bacteria behave in the human body and how the human system fails to counteract bacterial infection and the inflammation it causes,” explained Nicole Sampson, professor and chair in the Department of Chemistry.

Sampson, who called Boon a “rising star in chemical biology,” said her colleague’s work is “providing a much needed molecular explanation for the communication that occurs between bacteria and animals.”

Biofilms have implications for human health, Boon said. While they can be positive, generally speaking, she suggested, they are negative.

“A lot of diseases are caused by biofilms,” while biofilms may play a role with others as well, Boon said. “Open wounds that won’t heal are thought to be the result of biofilm injections around the wound, while people with cystic fibrosis get infections around their lungs.”

Biofilms also may play a part in hospital-borne infections. In a biofilm, bacteria are up to 1,000 times more resistant to antibiotics, Boon said. The exact concentration at which the bacteria switches between a signal from the gas to a group defense varies from one species of bacteria to another.

Similar to hemoglobin, which binds to oxygen in red blood cells and carries it around the body, this protein attaches to nitric oxide. The sensor protein usually causes a change that alters the concentration of cyclic di-GMP, a common bacterial-signaling molecule.

“The iron-containing protein we discovered has a sensitivity to nitric oxide” in low concentration, she said. In terms of a possible treatment of conditions that might improve with a reduction in biofilms, Boon explained that simply blocking the receptor for nitric oxide would cause considerably more harm than good because “anything we could think of to bind would interfere with our own nitric oxide or oxygen-binding protein,” she said.

Still, after the gas binds to the bacteria, there are reactions later on that are exclusive to bacteria.

Boon has also discovered a second protein that binds to nitric oxide, which is called NosP, for nitric oxide-sending protein. This protein has a different architecture from the original HNOx protein and may help explain how those same bacteria without HNOx still respond to the same gas.

Boon recognizes the potential opportunity to use any information for biofilm infections.

Boon, who is working with scientists at Stony Brook, Columbia and at Justus-Leibig-Universität Giessen in Germany, is proposing to work with computational biologists to screen the library of virtual molecules against bacterial proteins.

Boon was nearing the end of her Ph.D. research when she started working with proteins. She did her postdoctoral research in a lab that was characterizing iron proteins. The lab was studying nitric oxide in mammals.

Boon’s lab is down the hall from her husband’s, Isaac Carrico, who is in the same department. The chemists met in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology. The couple lives in Stony Brook with their 5-year-old son, Cannon, and their 16-month-old daughter, Sheridan.

As for her work, Boon is eager to continue to find answers to so many unanswered questions.

“We’re constantly learning, which is subtly shifting the direction of our research,” she said. “That will continue for a long time [because] there’s a whole lot we don’t understand.”

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