Scientists revive nearly 50,000-year-old ‘zombie virus’
European researchers fear another pandemic after a 48,500-year-old ‘zombie virus’ resurfaced from a frozen lake in Russia.
Climate change-induced thawing of permafrost in the Arctic may pose a new public health threat, researchers write in an article shared in the preprint repository BioArxiv.
Global warming has irreversibly melted large swathes of the same.
Scientists have long warned that it would exacerbate climate change by releasing previously accumulated greenhouse gases like methane. However, less is known about its effects on latent pathogens.
Decomposing previously trapped organic matter releases excess CO2 and methane, which further contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
When permafrost melts, bacteria, viruses and radioactive materials that have been trapped in its frozen layer for thousands of years can also be released.
The researchers studied ancient samples and recovered and identified 13 new pathogens.
Of greater concern is the fact that a large proportion of these microorganisms may be antibiotic-resistant.
“More than 100 diverse microorganisms have been found to be antibiotic-resistant in the deep permafrost of Siberia,” according to a 2021 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.
Additionally, wetlands derived from permafrost will serve as an efficient pathway for the spread of microbes and chemicals. Toxic byproducts of metal mining and drilling and fossil fuel waste, can resurface in the permafrost, increasing health risks.
Over time, they become trapped in the permafrost and pose a risk of re-entry into the atmosphere,” the European Space Agency said.
Bloomberg, a news portal, reported that the biological risk of reviving the viruses they researched was completely negligible because the strains they targeted were mainly capable of infecting amoeba microbes.
Scientists have discovered that all zombie viruses have the potential to be contagious, which poses a threat to their health. They hypothesize that as permafrost melts, long-dormant viruses will continue to emerge, causing new pandemics like COVID-19, the New York Post noted.
“Periodic returns of reindeer populations devastated by anthrax epidemics have been linked to deep thawing of permafrost,” the researchers remind.
They added that it is legitimate to worry about the risk of ancient viral particles remaining infectious and returning to circulation by thawing ancient permafrost layers.
About 40 percent of the world’s permafrost could disappear by the end of this century, according to a 2017 study published in Nature Climate Change.
According to the journal Nature, the land’s frozen regions store 1,600 billion tons of carbon, or twice the amount released into the atmosphere.
Melting permafrost would not only release huge amounts of carbon dioxide, but also methane from microbial sources and methane trapped in prehistoric limestone.
During the first 20 years of its presence in the atmosphere, methane is about 80 times warmer than carbon dioxide.
The release of what scientists call the methane bomb from beneath the permafrost could accelerate the climate emergency at an unimaginable rate.
This is a vicious cycle as organic matter released by melting breaks down into carbon dioxide and methane, intensifying the greenhouse effect and resulting in melting.
It is not the first organism to emerge from its frozen slumber. Russian scientists revived zombie worms frozen for 24,000 years in the Arctic in June 2021.