Scientists revive approximately 50,000-year-old ‘zombie virus’ from frozen lake in Russia

When permafrost melts, bacteria, viruses and radioactive materials, trapped in its frigid layers for thousands of years may also be released

By Arya Rohini
Published: Wednesday 30 November 2022
Permafrost-derived wetlands will serve as an efficient pathway for the microbes and chemicals to proliferate. Photo: iStock.__

European researchers have raised concerns of yet another pandemic after resurrecting a 48,500-year-old ‘zombie virus’ from a frozen lake in Russia.

Climate change-induced thawing of the permanent frozen land (permafrost) in the Arctic could pose a new public health threat, the researchers wrote in an article shared in the preprint repository bioRxiv.

Permafrost covers nearly a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere. Global warming has irreversibly thawed large swathes of the same.

Scientists have long warned that this will exacerbate climate change by releasing previously accumulated greenhouse gases like methane. However, less is known about its impact on dormant pathogens.

Also read: Rising sea levels indicate new threat to Antarctic ice sheets, finds Stanford study

Exposing previously trapped organic materials to decomposition releases additional CO2 and methane, further contributing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

When permafrost melts, bacteria, viruses and radioactive materials, trapped in its frigid layers for thousands of years may also be released.

“Yet, a more immediate public health concern is the physical release of live bacteria that are trapped in deep permafrost,” the researchers warned.

The researchers studied ancient samples and revived and characterised 13 new pathogens.

“The situation would be much more disastrous in the case of plant, animal, or human diseases caused by the revival of an ancient unknown virus,” they wrote.

The fact that a sizable portion of these microorganisms might be antibiotic-resistant raises even greater concerns.

Also read: Thawing permafrost can pose direct threat to human health: Report

“More than 100 diverse microorganisms in Siberia’s deep permafrost have been found to be antibiotic-resistant,” according to a 2021 study published in Nature Climate Change journal

Additionally, the permafrost-derived wetlands will serve as an efficient pathway for the microbes and chemicals to proliferate. Toxic byproducts of metal mining and drilling and fossil fuel waste, buried in the permafrost, can also resurface, adding to the health risks.

“Now-banned pollutants and chemicals, such as the insecticide DDT, were transported to the Arctic atmospherically. Over time, they get trapped in permafrost and pose risk of re-permeating the atmosphere,” The European Space Agency had said.

The biological risk of reviving the viruses they studied was totally negligible as the strains they targeted are mainly those capable of infecting amoeba microbes, Bloomberg, a news portal, reported.

Scientists have discovered that all zombie viruses have the potential to be infectious, making them a health threat. They speculate that as permafrost continues to melt, long-dormant viruses will continue to emerge, causing new pandemics similar to COVID-19, New York Post noted.

“The periodical return of anthrax epidemics devastating reindeer populations has been linked to the deeper thawing of the permafrost,” the researchers reminded.

They added that it is legitimate to ponder the risk of ancient viral particles remaining infectious and getting back into circulation by thawing ancient permafrost layers.

Approximately 40 per cent of the world’s permafrost may vanish by the end of this century, according to a 2017 study that appeared in Nature Climate Change.

Also read: Permafrost peatlands in Europe, western Siberia nearing tipping point: Study

The frozen areas of land store 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon, or double the amount that is disseminated in the atmosphere, according to journal Nature.

Not only will the melting permafrost release enormous amounts of carbon dioxide, but will also release methane from microbial sources and methane that has been trapped in its prehistoric limestones.

Methane is approximately 80 times warmer than carbon dioxide in the first 20 years of its presence in the atmosphere.

The release of the same, what scientists call a methane bomb from beneath permafrost, can expedite the climate emergency at an unimaginable rate.

It’s a vicious cycle since the organic material released by thawing disintegrates into carbon dioxide and methane, further intensifying the greenhouse effect and thereby hastening the melt.

This is not the first organism to emerge from its frozen sleep. Russian scientists revived zombie worms that had been frozen in the Arctic for 24,000 years in June 2021.

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