Tag: Viruses

Zombie Viruses of the Permafrost


We’ve had some cold weather here lately, as has much of the nation. Not necessarily record-breaking, but uncomfortable for millions of people. It’s the kind of weather that causes climate change skeptics to sneer “where’s the global warming now?” This despite 2023 being the warmest year on record — “by far” — and the fact that the ten warmest years since 1850 have all been in the last decade, according to NOAA.

One of the parts of the globe warming the fastest is the Arctic, which is warming four times as fast as the rest of the planet. That sounds like good news if you run a shipping company looking for shorter routes (or to avoid the troubled Red Sea area), but may be bad news for everyone else.  If you don’t know why, I have two words for you: zombie viruses.

Most people are at least vaguely aware of permafrost, which covers vast portions of Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. Historically, it’s been literally frozen, not just seasonally but for years, decades, centuries, millennia, or even longer. Well, it’s starting to thaw.

Now, maybe its kind of cool that we’re finding bodies of extinct species like the woolly mammoth (which some geniuses want to revive). But also buried in the permafrost are lots of microorganisms, many of which are not, in fact, dead but are in kind of a statis. As geneticist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University, recently explained to The Observer: “The crucial point about permafrost is that it is cold, dark and lacks oxygen, which is perfect for preserving biological material. You could put a yoghurt in permafrost and it might still be edible 50,000 years later.”

Dr. Claverie and his team first revived such a virus – some 30,000 years old — in 2014 and last year did the same for some that were 48,000 years old. There are believed to be organisms that ae perhaps a million years old, far older than we’ve been around. Scientists prefer to call them Methuselah microbes, although “zombie viruses” is more likely to get people’s attention.

He’s worried about the risks they pose.

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Ecology and Technical Advance


It is fair to say that the vast majority of Americans know more about viruses today than they did 24 months ago. The death and destruction in the wake of COVID-19 and its progeny have been a powerful motivator. Fear and worry tend to focus one’s attention.

Our collective learnings are evolving. We have already seen historic comparisons to other epidemics. Just search “The 10 worst epidemics” for confirmation. But one critical area which has been skimmed over, and only delicately probed (if at all) is the ecology or “the ecological point of view.”

For those interested, let me recommend “Natural History of Infectious Disease” published in 1972 by Nobel laureate and Australian biologist Sir Macfarlane Burnet and his colleague David O. White.

Chapter 1 begins: “In the final third of the twentieth century, we of the affluent West are confronted with no lack of environmental, social, and political problems, but one of the immemorial hazards of human existence is gone. Young people today have had almost no experience of serious infectious disease…For the first time in history deaths in infancy and childhood are not predominantly from infection.” But a few sentences on, they add this addendum, “Infectious diseases may be almost invisible, but it is still potentially as important as ever it was.”

Americans are all too familiar with the living biologic organism named COVID-19. By now, they know what it looks like, the role of its outer spikes, its nuclear makeup, and genetic alterations that allow the creation of derivative variants and vaccines. But in addition to its biological science, it also has an ecological life as well.

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