Melting ice could unleash deadly dormant viruses


In what could be the latest plot for a disaster movie, scientists have warned that global warming could awaken monster diseases in the Arctic Circle.

This could cause the reemergence of global killers thought to have been eradicated, including smallpox, as well as a whole host of microbes that have lain dormant for millennia.

Experts say there are already signs this is starting to happen and some fear that they could cause a global pandemic in the future.

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Melting permafrost (pictured) and industrial drilling threaten to unleash a whole host of deadly microbes that have lain dormant for millennia. Some experts fear that they could cause a global pandemic in the future (stock image)

Melting permafrost (pictured) and industrial drilling threaten to unleash a whole host of deadly microbes that have lain dormant for millennia. Some experts fear that they could cause a global pandemic in the future (stock image)

Melting permafrost (pictured) and industrial drilling threaten to unleash a whole host of deadly microbes that have lain dormant for millennia. Some experts fear that they could cause a global pandemic in the future (stock image)

PERMAFROST

Microbial diseases are normally unable to survive for long periods outside of their hosts.

But the soil under permafrost offers a unique habitat to preserve bacteria and viruses over thousands of centuries.

 Dr Claverie and his team have already uncovered a number of ‘giant viruses’ in the top layers of Arctic ice which are particularly resistant to damage.

And he fears that more pathonegens – some of which may have caused global pandemics in the past – could be buried deeper down.

Among them is Jean-Michel Claverie, a professor of microbiology at Aix-Marseille University in France.

The evolutionary biologist has been analysing the DNA content of permafrost layers since 2014.

Microbial diseases are normally unable to survive for long periods outside of their hosts.

But the soil under permafrost offers a unique habitat to preserve bacteria and viruses over thousands of centuries.

Dr Claverie and his team have already uncovered a number of ‘giant viruses’ in the top layers of Arctic ice which are particularly resistant to damage.

And he fears that more microbial lifeforms, some of which may have caused global pandemics in the past, could be buried deeper down.

Speaking to the Independent, he said‘Permafrost is a very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark.

‘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.

‘At the moment, these regions are deserted and the deep permafrost layers are left alone. 

‘However, these ancient layers could be exposed by the digging involved in mining and drilling operations. If viable virions are still there, this could spell disaster.’

The regions where these giant microbes have been found are coveted for their mineral wealth, especially oil. 

The soil under permafrost (pictured) offers a unique habitat to preserve bacteria and viruses over thousands of centuries (stock image)

The soil under permafrost (pictured) offers a unique habitat to preserve bacteria and viruses over thousands of centuries (stock image)

The soil under permafrost (pictured) offers a unique habitat to preserve bacteria and viruses over thousands of centuries (stock image)

Dr Jean-Michel Claverie has already discovered a number of prehistoric 'giant' viruses (pictured) frozen in the wastelands of Siberia. And he fears that more microbial lifeforms, some of which may have caused global pandemics in the past, could be buried deeper down

Dr Jean-Michel Claverie has already discovered a number of prehistoric 'giant' viruses (pictured) frozen in the wastelands of Siberia. And he fears that more microbial lifeforms, some of which may have caused global pandemics in the past, could be buried deeper down

Dr Jean-Michel Claverie has already discovered a number of prehistoric ‘giant’ viruses (pictured) frozen in the wastelands of Siberia. And he fears that more microbial lifeforms, some of which may have caused global pandemics in the past, could be buried deeper down

SMALLPOX 

It was one of the world’s most feared diseases that covered a person’s body in painful pus-filled spots.

Now, scientists fear that smallpox, which was eradicated in 1979, could re-emerge from the most unlikely of places – defrosting corpses.

During the 1890s, a major epidemic of smallpox occurred in a town near the Kolyma River in eastern Siberia, Russia. 

Experts fear that bodies infected with the disease could potentially begin a cycle of infection, should a person make contact with remains.

At the same time, climate change is warming the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions at more than twice the global average, which means permafrost is thawing. 

And as more of the ice melts away, these resources will become increasingly accessible for industrial exploitation.

One such ‘giant’ was found by Dr Claverie’s team n 2015, preserved in the frozen wastelands of northeastern Russia.

The scientists ‘reanimated’ the 30,000-year-old bug to learn more about it and discover whether it is harmful to animals or humans.

Called Mollivirus sibericum, it is the fourth prehistoric virus to have been found since 2003. 

The virus was discovered by the French National Centre for Scientific Research in the Kolyma lowland region of Russia.  

The virus was found by the French National Centre for Scientific Research in the Kolyma lowland region (marked). It is the second virus of its kind to be found by the team, and joins other giant viruses including the Minivirus from 2003, the Pandoraviruses found in 2013

The virus was found by the French National Centre for Scientific Research in the Kolyma lowland region (marked). It is the second virus of its kind to be found by the team, and joins other giant viruses including the Minivirus from 2003, the Pandoraviruses found in 2013

The virus was found by the French National Centre for Scientific Research in the Kolyma lowland region (marked). It is the second virus of its kind to be found by the team, and joins other giant viruses including the Minivirus from 2003, the Pandoraviruses found in 2013

Unlike most viruses circulating today, these ancient specimens are not only bigger, but far more complex genetically. This graphs reveal the proteins found in two of the giant viruses

Unlike most viruses circulating today, these ancient specimens are not only bigger, but far more complex genetically. This graphs reveal the proteins found in two of the giant viruses

Unlike most viruses circulating today, these ancient specimens are not only bigger, but far more complex genetically. This graphs reveal the proteins found in two of the giant viruses

To qualify as a ‘giant’, a virus must be longer than half a micron, or a thousandth of a millimetre (0.00002 of an inch).

Mollivirus sibericum, which translates to ‘soft virus from Siberia’, measures 0.6 microns and can be seen using light microscopy. 

Pithovirus sibericum was ‘reanimated’ in March 2014 using similar techniques.

Researchers placed the virus with single-cell amoeba, which will serve as its host.

That particular virus was found in a 98ft (30 metre) deep sample of permanently frozen soil taken from coastal tundra in Chukotka, near the East Siberia Sea.

2016 WAS THE HOTTEST YEAR ON RECORD  

World temperatures hit a record high for the third year in a row in 2016, creeping closer to a ceiling set for global warming.

Average surface temperatures over land and the oceans in 2016 were 0.94°C (1.69°F) above the 20th-century average of 13.9°C (57.0°F), according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Nasa reported almost identical data as the UK Met Office and University of East Anglia, which also track global temperatures for the United Nations, said 2016 was the hottest year on record.

Temperatures, lifted both by man-made greenhouse gases and a natural El Nino event that released heat from the Pacific Ocean last year, beat the previous record in 2015, when 200 nations agreed a plan to limit global warming.

‘We don’t expect record years every year, but the ongoing long-term warming trend is clear,’ said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. 



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