There are Diseases Hidden in the Ice, and They are Waking Up

Long-dormant bacteria and viruses, trapped in ice and permafrost for centuries, are reviving as Earth's climate warms.

Throughout history, humanity have existed side-by-side with various bacteria and viruses. From the bubonic plague to smallpox, we have evolved to resist them, and in response they have developed new ways of infecting us.

We have had antibiotics for almost a century, ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. In response, bacteria have responded by evolving antibiotic resistance. This battle is endless: because we spend so much time with pathogens, we sometimes develop a kind of natural stalemate.

However, what would happen if we were suddenly exposed to deadly bacteria and viruses that have been absent for thousands of years, or that we have never met before?

We may be about to find out. Climate change is melting permafrost soils that have been frozen for thousands of years, and as the soils melt they are releasing ancient viruses and bacteria that, having lain dormant, are springing back to life.

In August 2016, in a remote corner of Siberian tundra called the Yamal Peninsula in the Arctic Circle, a 12-year-old boy died and at least twenty people were hospitalised after being infected by anthrax.

The theory is that, over 75 years ago, a reindeer infected with anthrax died and its frozen carcass became trapped under a layer of frozen soil, known as permafrost. There it stayed until a heatwave in the summer of 2016, when the permafrost thawed.

This exposed the reindeer corpse and released infectious anthrax into nearby water and soil, and then into the food supply. More than 2,000 reindeer grazing nearby became infected, which then led to the small number of human cases.

The fear is that this will not be an isolated case.

As the Earth warms, more permafrost will melt. Under normal circumstances, superficial permafrost layers about 50cm deep melt every summer. But now global warming is gradually exposing older permafrost layers.

Frozen permafrost soil is the perfect place for bacteria to remain alive for very long periods of time, perhaps as long as a million years. That means melting ice could potentially open a Pandora's box of diseases.

The temperature in the Arctic Circle is rising quickly, about three times faster than in the rest of the world. As the ice and permafrost melt, other infectious agents may be released.

In the early 20th Century alone, more than a million reindeer died from anthrax. It is not easy to dig deep graves, so most of these carcasses are buried close to the surface, scattered among 7,000 burial grounds in northern Russia.

However, the big fear is what else is lurking beneath the frozen soil.

People and animals have been buried in permafrost for centuries, so it is conceivable that other infectious agents could be unleashed. For instance, scientists have discovered fragments of RNA from the 1918 Spanish flu virus in corpses buried in mass graves in Alaska's tundra. Smallpox and the bubonic plague are also likely buried in Siberia.

How much should we be concerned about all this?

One argument is that the risk from permafrost pathogens is inherently unknowable, so they should not overtly concern us. Instead, we should focus on more established threats from climate change. For instance, as Earth warms northern countries will become more susceptible to outbreaks of "southern" diseases like malaria, cholera and dengue fever, as these pathogens thrive at warmer temperatures.

The alternative perspective is that we should not ignore risks just because we cannot quantify them.

"Following our work and that of others, there is now a non-zero probability that pathogenic microbes could be revived, and infect us," says Claverie. "How likely that is not known, but it's a possibility. It could be bacteria that are curable with antibiotics, or resistant bacteria, or a virus. If the pathogen hasn't been in contact with humans for a long time, then our immune system would not be prepared. So yes, that could be dangerous."

Source: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170504-there-are-diseases-hidden-in-ice-and-they-are-waking-up

Photo: Shutterstock

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