Giant viruses are waking up beyond the Earth’s polar circle

(ORDO NEWS) — The permafrost is melting due to global warming, which means that bacteria and viruses trapped in it for millions of years may soon revive again. “Lenta.ru” talks about whether it is worth being afraid of contracting an ancient virus and what benefits can be obtained from studying relic bacteria.

In August 2016, Yamal was restless. In the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, the number of the military group was increased, the remains of the fallen cattle were destroyed. Everything was extremely serious: an outbreak of anthrax occurred in the region – a disease in which the skin becomes covered with red carbuncles, which then turn black, and the carrier of the disease dies.

Then the epidemic was contained, only one boy from a family of reindeer breeders died, and a total of 20 people became infected. A mass vaccination was carried out, and at the slightest hint of malaise – be it a runny nose or a slight rash on the skin – the patient was hospitalized.

As the deputy director for scientific work of the Central Research Institute of Epidemiology of Rospotrebnadzor Viktor Maleev said, there was nothing unusual in this outbreak, because there were also significantly larger epidemics. Their main reason is the cattle cemeteries, which were previously under permafrost, and now thawed. Indeed, in a dormant state, the bacteria causing the disease can persist for more than one hundred years.

Climate change is to blame. “The old cattle burial grounds: apparently, just as long as there was permafrost, we did not know until the end what was there,” Maleev said. The head of the laboratory of climatology at the Institute of Geography of the Russian Academy of Sciences, deputy director of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics named after A.M. Obukhov RAS Vladimir Semenov:

“For our country, the main problem in this regard is anthrax in cattle burial grounds located in a fairly large number of places where animals were buried in frozen ground. Now it is thawing, and all this with melt water appears on the surface, all this is carried away.”

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But it’s not just anthrax that lurks in the permafrost. In 2007, French scientists found here microorganisms up to half a million years old in a completely active state.

But these are not the oldest bacteria found in permafrost. In 2018, scientists from the Genomics Shared Use Center of the Institute of Chemical Biology and Fundamental Medicine found bacteria in the depths of Mammoth Mountain in Yakutia, the age of which may be 3.5 million years, and in addition to those already discovered long ago, microorganisms previously unknown to science were found in the soil sample …

And if we turn to hypotheses, then scientists believe that the age of some of the microorganisms found inside salt crystals in the US state of New Mexico can be up to 250 million years. That is, they lived on Earth when dinosaurs roamed it. And these microscopic creatures, placed in a test tube with nutrients, begin to move and multiply.

It’s not just about bacteria. In 2014, French scientists discovered Pithovirus sibericu in the Siberian permafrost, which is more than 30 thousand years old. It belongs to the class of giant viruses and is the largest known – its length is 1.5 micrometers. The virus is engaged in infecting the amoebas, which begin to reproduce it. Specifically, this virus is not dangerous for humans, although it is not particularly worth relaxing, because no one knows what other bacteria and viruses are stored in the permafrost.

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However, dormant microorganisms in the permafrost are fraught with not only a threat, the extent of which is still impossible to assess. Bacteria that survived in extreme conditions and mutated are extremely resistant to natural antibiotics – after all, this property allowed them to survive.

It would seem that this is a minus, but really, according to the doctor of geological and mineralogical sciences, professor of Moscow State University Anatoly Brushkov, on the contrary, it is a plus: “We just think how to protect ourselves from free radicals, radiation and other harmful influences, and they are all know how. These mechanisms need to be studied in order to significantly improve the quality of life, to fight the most serious illnesses.”

An experiment was also carried out on mice, which were infected with bacteria several decades old. This affected the life expectancy of rodents – it increased, and significantly. In addition, the mice have become physically stronger, and the reproductive instinct has awakened in older individuals.

Ancient microorganisms from permafrost can also help in the fight against such a dangerous ailment as tuberculosis. Colwellia psychrerythraea bacteria thrive in freezing temperatures, but die in warmth. And if you insert a fragment of their DNA into the genome of the tuberculosis mycobacterium, you can make the bacillus die immediately after entering the human body.

In this case, the patient will be offered to ingest a constructed microbacterium – it, of course, will die right there, but will cause a powerful response from the immune system, as a result of which antibodies will appear that will actively fight the infection. This will allow you to stop taking antibiotics that have a lot of side effects.

Arctic bacteria help agriculture too. For example, on their basis it is planned to create preparations for plants and animals in areas of risky farming.

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However, one must not forget about the danger of permafrost. There are all the conditions for the preservation of microorganisms that can suspend their metabolism: lack of oxygen, negative temperatures and neutral pH. Anthrax is not the only thing to fear. In addition to cattle burial grounds, corpses of people who died from various serious diseases, including smallpox and plague, were brought to Siberia. If we look even further into history and take into account examples of how old bacteria and viruses can be found, it can be assumed that those that infected not only ancient Homo Sapiens, but also their closest relatives – Neanderthals and Denisovans.

Scientists who discovered Pithovirus sibericu expressed fears that more dangerous viruses could come to life as a result of the melting of the permafrost. For example, smallpox, already defeated by science, is a viral disease, and it may well again become a threat to humanity. “However, it is still unclear if all viruses can become active after thousands or millions of years of freezing. This is the million dollar question, “Professor Jonathan Ball of the University of Nottingham told the BBC.

One way or another, the real threat associated with bacteria and viruses sleeping in the permafrost is still far away, and the danger posed by modern viruses transmitted from animals to humans is quite real, as the current coronavirus pandemic proves. Climatologist Vladimir Semyonov emphasizes this: “It seems to me that this is not directly related to warming.”

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