Arctic permafrost thaw leads to ‘time-traveling pathogens’: A threat to modern ecosystems

As the climate warms, scientists are increasingly concerned about the potential danger posed by “time-traveling pathogens” that could emerge from thawing Arctic permafrost. Permafrost – a layer of frozen ground in high latitude and high mountain areas such as Greenland, Alaska, Siberia, the Tibetan Plateau and northern Canada – contains dormant microbes that have been trapped for thousands of years. However, when temperatures rise, these pathogens can emerge from their icy confinement and threaten modern ecosystems. The study was published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology

To better understand the impact these ancient viruses could have on the ecology, an international team of researchers conducted a groundbreaking study. The study, published July 27 in the journal PLOS Computational Biology, used numerical modeling to simulate the interaction between an ancient virus and modern bacteria.

Using Avida software, the scientists created a two-dimensional grid in which the bacterial organisms competed for energy and space. The research team tracked how the virus affected the species diversity of the bacterial community through tens of thousands of iterations. Shockingly, it turned out that about 1% of ancient viruses caused significant disruption in digital ecosystems. These pathogens either increased species diversity by 12% or decreased it by 32%, throwing the system out of balance.

Moreover, the study showed that the viral invaders not only survived but also evolved over time in the simulated environment. This evolution further disrupted the ecosystem, highlighting the potential danger posed by time-traveling pathogens.

Lead author Giovanni Strona and co-author Corey Bradshaw emphasized that while this does not mean that about a third of humans and other living organisms are at immediate risk of dying from newly awakened viral diseases, these results add another layer of concern to the risks posed by climate change.

This study builds on previous research conducted over the past two decades on the effects of thawing permafrost in Arctic regions. For example, a NASA study in January 2022 examined the effects of carbon release during abrupt thawing, which shed light on the potential consequences of permafrost thawing. In addition, Jean-Michel Claverie, professor emeritus of medicine and genomics at Aix-Marseille University Medical School, has been studying potentially dangerous pathogens trapped in permafrost for more than a decade.

In 2014 and 2015, Claverie conducted groundbreaking work on reviving “zombie” viruses from permafrost. In a February study, Claverie and his collaborators reported the discovery of five new families of ancient viruses capable of infecting amoebae, demonstrating that these ancient microbes can be infectious despite being dormant for tens of thousands of years.

Inspired by Claverie’s research, Bradshaw and Strona developed a simulation to quantify the potential consequences of these newly awakened pathogens. The results of the study emphasize the need for further research and monitoring to better understand and mitigate the risks associated with melting Arctic permafrost.

As the Earth’s climate continues to warm, it is critical that scientists and policymakers work together to address the potential threats posed by these time-traveling pathogens. Understanding the environmental impacts and implementing measures to protect vulnerable ecosystems will allow us to better conserve our planet’s biodiversity and ensure a sustainable future for all.

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