Thawing permafrost releases ancient pathogens: A threat to ecosystems and human health

As global temperatures rise, once-frozen permafrost is thawing, releasing ancient pathogens that have been dormant for thousands of years. Scientists have discovered that these ancient invaders are able to survive in modern microbial communities, upsetting the delicate balance that has existed for thousands of years. This poses a significant threat not only to ecosystems but also to human health.

To understand the impact of these ancient pathogens, scientists turned to highly detailed computational modeling. By introducing a virus-like pathogen from the past into a Petri dish with other host bacteria, they can observe how these pathogens interact with modern microbes. Such modeling allows researchers to repeat experiments many times over, fine-tuning various variables and gaining a deeper understanding of possible outcomes.

The results of such modeling are both exciting and troubling. In about three percent of cases, ancient pathogens defeated modern bacteria and became the dominant species. Such dominance not only reduces microbial diversity but also threatens ecosystem stability. In some cases, however, ancient pathogens actually increased microbial diversity, with unpredictable results.

– “It is the unpredictability of the process that is the bad news, because it tells us that it is very difficult to be prepared.” – Giovanni Strona, lead author of the study from the Joint Research Center of the European Commission and the University of Helsinki.

Lead author of the study Giovanni Strona explains, “An invader with the ‘right’ characteristics may fail, while some invaders that seem unlikely to succeed may actually be very successful and very harmful to the community.” What worries scientists most is the unpredictability of this process, as it is incredibly difficult to prepare for the possible consequences.

While the immediate concern is the possibility of infecting humans with these ancient pathogens and creating a new pandemic, there is a more subtle but equally dangerous threat. The reintroduction of these microorganisms into long-established environments upsets the delicate balance that has existed for millennia. Even if overall diversity remains the same or increases, interference with the structure of ecological communities can have cascading effects that lead to ecosystem collapse and extinction.

The implications of this study are far-reaching. With rising global temperatures, melting permafrost poses a significant risk. Scientists warn that the release of ancient pathogens into the environment could have serious consequences for ecosystems and human health. It is crucial to understand these risks and take proactive measures to reduce them.

– Changing the structure of ecological communities is not a good thing, even if net diversity has stayed the same or even if diversity has increased. We can get sort of cascading effects that are completely unpredictable. You can cause cascading effects that can destroy ecosystems or lead to new extinctions.” – Giovanni Strona.

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