By Jessica Santini
Ancient bacteria and viruses that have been frozen for thousands of years are getting a second wind as climate change causes permafrost soils to thaw, BBC reports.
Typically, 50cm of permafrost melts each year as normal temperatures fluctuate. As the temperatures in the Arctic Circle are rising three times faster than the rest of the world, there has been a gradual increase in the amount of permafrost that is exposed.
“Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark,” says evolutionary biologist Jean-Michel Claverie at Aix-Marseille University in France. “Pathogenic viruses that can infect humans or animals might be preserved in old permafrost layers, including some that have caused global epidemics in the past.”
Scientists have uncovered fragments of several viruses from frozen corpses from all over the world: the 1918 Spanish flu, smallpox, anthrax, and bubonic plague, for example.
While it’s unclear the degree to which these findings could threaten our society, it’s a risk that we cannot ignore.
“How likely that is is not known, but it’s a possibility,” says Claverie. “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.”