There are warming temperatures in the icy areas of the world where permafrost covers the land. In this icy tundra, old viruses sit, latent, waiting to be reactivated. One was discovered recently, and it could post a threat to humans and animals alike.
With the recent COVID pandemic, humanity is now very aware that a virus can cause big problems. Viruses that mutated humans are generally the stuff of science fiction, like the movie, I Am Legend. Not only that, chemical and radioactive waste can be released by thawing these icy tundras, creating harmful fumes in the air.
Permafrost and Viruses
There is a large amount of permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere, especially in the regions of Alaska, Canada, and Russia. This permafrost has preserved many things in it, including old viruses that are latent. One disadvantage of global warming and higher temperatures is that latent viruses can be reactivated and spread to humans and animals.
Arctic temperatures are warming up to four times faster than the rest of the planet, weakening the top layer of permafrost in that region.
Jean-Michel Claverie, who is an Emeritus professor of medicine and genomics at the Aix-Marseille University School of Medicine in Marseille, France, tested samples of earth taken from Siberian permafrost. He checked for viral particles and wanted to see if they were still infectious. His best description was that there was a zombie virus.
Jean-Michel Claverie has put a lot of time into researching viruses in permafrost, along with a team of Russian scientists who also revived a 30,000-year-old seed tissue - a wildflower - found in a squirrel's burrow.
In 2014, Claverie managed to revive a virus he and his team isolated from the permafrost, making it infectious for the first time in 30,000 years by inserting it into cultured cells. Some would call this action very reckless, however, he only chose a virus that could target single-celled amoebas.
Claverie repeated the feat in 2015, isolating a different virus type that also targeted amoebas and showed they could each infect cultured amoeba cells.
Latent Virus Families
These viruses represent five new families of viruses, on top of the two Claverie had revived previously. The oldest found virus was about 48,500 years old and came from an earth sample taken underground from a lake 52 feet below the surface.
It's a problem that the viruses that can only infect amoebas are still infectious after such a long period of inactivity, according to Claverie. His research could be feared as a chance to bring ancient viruses back to pose serious health risks to humanity.
These viruses that infect amoebas are surrogates for other possible types of viruses, according to Claverie.
It's unclear if these viruses in permafrost will pose a threat to humans, but one thing is for certain - keeping them in the permafrost is safer than not.
What do you think should be done with these viruses?
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